Ah, superweapons, Star Wars would not be the same without them! Despite this, they have a vexed reputation within the Expanded Universe. The frequent accusation is they cover for author laziness, need a SW story fast? Whip up a superweapon! But before that charge is investigated in more detail, what is a superweapon, one definition is this:
“A weapon, especially an extremely destructive one, based on highly-advanced technology.” (http://www.answers.com/topic/super-weapon)
And arguably one against which there is little or no defense! Certainly the Death Stars qualify, despite suffering reactor overload due to some really inconveniently placed torpedoes and missiles!
So, to the initial charge: Is the insertion of a superweapon really the result of author laziness? Or can it be said to instead represent the villainous heart of the story’s adversary? After all, only villains use superweapons? Don’t they?
In the end, it all comes down to the story, as even a story as lauded as Legacy Volume 1, could be accused of deploying superweapons! What else do you term Darth Krayt’s Dragon ships, his Sith Troopers and their capital-ship killer starfighters? They can’t be deemed anything other than this, but few object to it because the story makes it work! Is it the kind of act that is in Krayt’s nature? Certainly.
The same is true of Dark Empire, which in effect asks could the Empire perfect planet killers? The answer is that, when you get right down to it, the Death Stars were inefficient! They blew up a planet’s worth of resources and estate, what if you could just erase your enemy and take their planet? Cue the World Devastators. Its sequels went further and posited the ultimate Death Star-style technology would be the Galaxy Gun. Placed in orbit around Byss, under incredible security, this thing fired hyperspace capable, shielded and guided missiles – in short, overkill by any definition!
Where the Dark Empire sequels fail is in the Achilles heel they give to the Galaxy Gun – there isn’t one! It’s too perfect, too good so, in the end, the Rebellion manage to do a raid on an Eclipse Super Star Destroyer, have R2-D2 hijack it and send it on a collision course with the gun. In the process of the collision, the gun burps out a projectile that’s unguided, which is pulled down by Byss’ gravity, taking the planet and the Galaxy Gun in one big boom! No, no one really buys it either as a finale.
One of the most infamous stories featuring a superweapon is Darksaber. That it is from the same author that gave us the too-perfect, star-killing Sun Crusher is perhaps not surprising. After all, the finale of the Jedi Academy trilogy sees said starkiller dueling a Death Star prototype in the middle of a black hole cluster! A Death Star that is actually more lethal than its full-size successors because it doesn’t have that pesky exhaust port problem! So what happens? Well, they’re in a black hole cluster right? Yup, you’ve guessed, a black hole gets to chomp down both Death Star prototype and Sun Crusher! It’s ever so tidy!
Anderson repeats the same trick quite shamelessly in Darksaber. In this less than great story, the Hutts decide the ultimate extortion strategy is to get their own, stripped down Death Star superlaser! When you think about for a minute, it makes no sense whatsoever as criminal enterprises are shadow operations, drawing attention? Not desired! What does even trying to possess planet-killing superlaser technology do? It gets attention, a lot of attention! But, in the end? Despite having been re-designed by the original designer of the Death Star –and who designed said death machine has become one of the most convoluted pieces of continuity you’ll ever see! – to be a more efficient, slimmed down version, the Hutts build it with cheap parts so it doesn’t work when fired. The New Republic fleet that has found it, strangely enough at the same time, proceed to blow the crap out of it!
Nor does he stop there! Nope, it isn’t enough to have superweapons, plural, in just one era! No, why do that when you can also have them 4 millennia earlier! In Tales of the Jedi: The Sith War, Aleema uses Naga Sadow’s ancient starship that also has, can you guess? Yup, star-killing tech! Yeah, it’s 4000 years earlier but the Sith knew how to use the dark side to kill a star system. She uses that to ignite a group of stars in a massively destructive conflagration that wrecks the Jedi planet of Ossus, but is also consumed by it. Oh, isn’t that neat?
Galaxy Gun, Sun Crusher, Death Star protype, Darksaber, ancient starkilling tech – no author is perhaps more responsible for the bad reputation the superweapon concept has in the Expanded Universe than Kevin J Anderson. Yet despite this – and I grant it’s a big hit – superweapons are at the heart of Star Wars and deserve to be. The concept itself is not in itself bad, it is simply entirely reliant upon execution! The films did it very well indeed and let’s be honest here, A New Hope’s truly sinister unveiling of the Death Star is never getting topped, despite Empire’s wonderful introduction of Vader’s Super Star Destroyer – something else that could be deemed a superweapon. It was certainly very neatly taken out in Return of the Jedi.
The trick then in deploying superweapons successfully in a story is two-fold – first, the audience must accept them as a logical extension of the villain’s modus operandi – be it Darth Krayt or the Emperor or Darth Vader. Second, the disposal of said superweapon is also accepted and no one decides to notice the tidy nature of it! The classic example here is the Death Star exhaust port. Another is the World Devastators being reliant upon master control codes, their one single weakness. Though to be fair to get that you’d have to get someone willing to infiltrate the heart of the Empire and actually believe they could get the codes and get out! I mean, who’d be that heroic? Hold on a second…
There is one notable exception to these two rules and it is a very interesting one. In the course of the New Jedi Order arc, the New Republic / Galactic Alliance not only developed a bioweapon genetically targeted at the Yuuzhan Vong–
they actually deployed it on a test basis! The bioweapon, a superweapon in every respect, had lethal mutative consequences on Caluula where it was found to be able to transcend its initial genetic targets! Not only was it used by the heroes against the villains, it was not neatly disposed of either. Indeed once that genie was out of the bottle, there was no putting it back in! Legacy followed up on it brilliantly by having the Sith develop their own version, Omega Red, which was nearly used at the finale of the Volume 1 story. The discussion that grew around these bioweapons does, to me, justify the concept of superweapons in the first place.
When done well, they act as a focus for the audience’s attention and quickly convey key story themes very efficiently indeed. When done well, they drive the story and their destruction becomes a critical part of it. These things are too dangerous to survive the story and the audience knows it. Legacy Volume 1’s finale paid homage to the idea advanced in Return of the Jedi’s novelization that linked the performance of the Empire to the Emperor. As soon as he got chucked into the Death Star reactor by Vader, the Imperial Fleet fell apart! Legacy’s Sith Troopers all go insane following the final death of Darth Krayt and those super starfighters happen to be linked to them!
So, in both cases, the stage is cleared, the superweapons destroyed and removed, but there’ll always be more in the future. Logically, why wouldn’t you want a weapon that your enemy has no defense against? Someone, somewhere is always going to try and come up with something. But it takes a very smart author to do this well and those are, admittedly and sadly, very few in number.