This article contains spoilers for Bloodline.
If you are one of the greatest heroes of a rebellion against a tyrannical empire, what would you do if you found out that one of the most evil people in that empire was your father by blood?
That is a question that haunts Leia Organa in Claudia Gray’s Bloodline. How would you deal with knowing that the person who tortured you and cold-heartedly destroyed your planet while making you watch is the same person with whom you share half your genes? Can you?
While the main plot of Bloodline is an exploration of how obsession with ideological purity causes democracy to fail, it is also about the dangers of extremism. More specifically, the dangers of a black and white worldview where people are either an ally or an enemy. It is also about the dangers of taking that “with me or against me” attitude to its extreme, where people can either do no wrong or do no right.
So again, how do you reconcile being a galactic hero who is the daughter of one of the most infamous galactic villains in recent history? When you subscribe to a worldview where there are no shades of grey and everyone is a villain or a hero with no in between, you can’t. Vader and Leia are both larger-than-life figures who are put up on these pedestals. One is demonized and the other revered and neither is really seen as a person who is as fallible as the next.
Leia, of course, is the Rebellion Hero. The Centrist senators may disagree with her, but she is still highly respected and her words carry weight. She is celebrated for all her heroic deeds, even though Leia herself reminisces at one point that it was less like pure heroism and more like constantly running and living in fear.
She is also, among less savory Niktos, known as the Huttslayer and is practically worshiped for her role in Jabba’s demise. Never mind that, to Leia, “Huttslayer” is a misguided attempt to claim empowerment out of a traumatic situation. As far as others are concerned, she is (again) a hero and larger than life celebrity. There’s no recognition that she is simply a person trying to muddle along through life as best she can (just like the rest of us).
On the other end of the spectrum, Vader is similarly put on a pedestal, though this time it’s because he’s held up as the most terrifying figure in galactic history. He is reviled and feared as complete evil, though it takes a couple different forms.
For Joph Seastriker, Vader is the boogeyman. He’s a scary figure that you use to scare kids into behaving. Still frightening, yes, but in an abstract way. For Ransolm it’s the opposite; he experienced firsthand the fear and tyranny of Vader and Palpatine’s rule. To him, Vader is not a distant fear but a very personal evil that still feels as fresh as it did twenty years ago. As far as Ransolm is concerned, Vader is the devil in a black cloak.
But both of these are still simplistic reductions of Vader. One views him as a mythological creature used to invoke terror in a story. He’s not a real person, just a character in a nightmare. The other views him as a very real figure who embodies the essence of evil and tyranny. They are both exaggerated caricatures, in their own way. And that’s a dangerous view to have. Vader is evil, yes. He was redeemed, in the end, but that doesn’t negate the terrible things he did or erase all the suffering he caused. But he was also a person who loved and was loved by others, who became evil due to a combination of arrogance, self-justifications, and yes, a bit of manipulation.
And that’s where the problem lies. Vader isn’t a flat caricature of evil. He’s a person. A (deeply) flawed person, but a person nonetheless. He made mistakes and a lot of people suffered because of them. But (and this is the important part), it could’ve just as easily been anyone else. Anakin wasn’t birthed from evil without a soul or any redeemable qualities. He was a regular guy who had bad stuff happen to him and as a result made a lot of bad decisions (that he justified to himself and kept going). He’s not the devil, but it’s easier to think of him as one, rather than admit to ourselves that maybe, if pushed to the same limits, the same capacity for cruelty is present within us as well.
This point is rather explicitly made late in the book after Leia’s parentage is publicly revealed. Joph and Greer are discussing the situation and Joph wonders if Luke and Leia are the product of rape……because the thought of Anakin assaulting Padmé fits more with Joph’s idea of Vader than the possibility that Anakin and Padmé truly loved each other.
But, to bring it back to my initial point, when you take this extreme view of people, whether it’s hero worship or utter revulsion, there’s no shades of gray. If everyone is a devil or a saint, then there’s no room for regular people. There’s no room to make mistakes and no room to find common ground with your opponents. Leia views the Empire (as well as Vader) as absolute evil; when she learns that Ransolm proudly displays Imperial paraphernalia and openly espouses his admiration for the order achieved under the Empire she absolutely refuses to entertain the idea that he has any positive traits. He likes the Empire (which is evil) therefore he must be evil. But Leia learns that despite vehemently disagreeing with Ransolm on matters of history, they have more in common than they realize and are therefore able to forge a friendly partnership across party lines.
But unfortunately, in a world where everyone is a devil or a saint, there’s no room to evaluate people based on their own merits, as Leia finds out. The moment that Ransolm discovers that Leia is the daughter of Vader, all his positive opinions of her completely disappear. She is directly descended from the man who personally oppressed his planet and is, as far as Ransolm cares, the literal embodiment of evil. How could Leia be anything different? He immediately assumes the worst of her, that her stories of torture and subjugation are all manipulations and lies. Clearly the only choice is to expose her for the evil she is and prevent Vader 2.0.
And unfortunately for him it works: Leia essentially becomes persona non grata to the Senate, who refuse to accept her as anything less than the offshoot of pure evil. It doesn’t matter that only a few days previously they were lauding her as a hero who could more or less do no wrong. In this world of black-and-white there is no room for mistakes, and being related to Vader is the biggest mistake you can make.
Extremism is unhealthy in all its forms. People are not saints or devils; they are individuals with varying flaws and mistakes. We need to accept our heroes are not perfect and can fail (or have skeletons in their closets). We need to accept that our worst villains did not spring out of the evil abyss fully formed but are people too (and therefore evil is fallible and can be defeated). And we need to accept that in between hero worship and villainy there is room for people to be people, and therefore room to work together. When you put people on a pedestal of hero worship or vilification, you only show that you are more concerned with ideological purity than actually listening to what people have to say. The world is not black and white and neither are the people in it.
5 thoughts to “Like Father, Like Daughter: Bloodline and Extremism”
An interesting analysis. I agree that Vader is used well in this book to underline the issues of how polarizing political narratives strip people of their humanity.
I think that the point about the dangers of extremism is somewhat undermined, however, by the actual extremism that seems to run through the Centrist Party. The “dangers of extremism” narrative would have had more heft if the Centrists hadn’t so clearly been the bad guys. Initially, Casterfo seems to serve as the example of how “not every Centrist is a bad guy.” By the end of the novel, however, Casterfo has lost faith in his party and is sent off to die by the Centrist neo-Imperial conspiracy. In the end, I think that the novel’s message about the dangers of extremism is more conventional – the Populists are at worst well-meaning dupes, while the Centrists are the dangerous extremists.
An excellent piece. The ‘compromise is death’ attitude has been around for a long, long time but it seems to be only now that where it actually leads to is being recognised as a total hellhole!
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