Life Debt: Redrawing the Map


Map? What map? Why, the only map worth talking of. That of story possibilities within this new world of Star Wars, which has just entered its third year. Life Debt came along and kicked down several doors, blew up a few sealed passages and, by way of raising merry hell, re-drew the map. How has it done this? I got together with Nick Adams, occasional Eleven-ThirtyEight guest writer, long-time contributor to Jedi Council Literature and, for his sins, Moderator, who some will know to have been the trigger for the creation of Admiral Nict in Star Wars Legacy, to bat a few ideas back and forth. Here’s what we came up with.

There are some Life Debt spoilers in this article with regard to the post-Endor war with the Empire.

Ben: Nick, you correctly commented that in the space of a year the new continuity has racked up more destruction than Legends accrued over a decade! It also got me thinking as to what this could mean for new stories.

One thing that Legends suffered from was the perception of a hierarchy of material, that the films should always be deemed top dog and nothing should undermine that status in any way. I always found that to be at odds with the idea of Star Wars being a multi-media tale. At the same time, some of the Legends stories I enjoyed most were the madly ambitious – like Dark Empire. To others, that was the poster child for what they loathed – it brought back the Emperor, had an Imperial civil war and took Force powers way, way off the scale. Similarly the X-Wing stories Iron Fist and Solo Command stood out for being ambitious enough to do fleet engagements.

With Battlefront: Twilight Company the new continuity laid down a marker of intent, might it be that Life Debt has now set up a framework for those type of stories to be told? A mix of fleet command in space combined with ground warfare? To do a story that combined those two perspectives would be challenging, but far from impossible. To do a story that also has massive battles in it, and render those comprehensible, in terms of the numbers and strategies and tactics used? Harder, but still Battlefront: Twilight Company pulled off what no one expected by doing a tale of an extended ground campaign in a single volume.

What I’m hoping for, in the wake of Life Debt’s redrawing of possibilities for Star Wars stories, are tales that take advantage of the new sense of ambition. Stories that take the uncut gem of a brief sentence or two summary in Life Debt and go to work on it, expanding it into a far bigger tale. Legends never really did much in the way of parallel stories, Life Debt appears to set up the potential for quite a few!

Nick: Yeah, one of the many virtues of the new canon has been the Story Group’s overall approach to the scope & scale of the Galactic Civil War. In fact, it is probably one of the more drastic changes versus the old Expanded Universe. Whereas the EU painted a civil war in which the Alliance lacked the resources, manpower, and firepower to conduct barely anything more than simple hit & run engagements, the new canon shows a conflict that is less insurgency and more protracted campaign. Ebbs and flows, victories and losses, major battles and small engagements. Your example of Battlefront: Twilight Company is the shining example of the new direction the Story Group took the Galactic Civil War in. The Mid Rim campaign isn’t some series of minor starfighter strikes, commando missions, and the occasional engagement with a roving battle line. Instead, we see a multi-faceted campaign wherein multiple battles are fought simultaneously across a region spanning a good chunk of the galaxy. Whole armies, armored units, fleets of starships, and a scale that in the old EU would never have been possible due to your excellent point early about the original trilogy movies being sacrosanct.

Life Debt follows this trend, albeit with the major battles and campaigns being mentioned or shown briefly in various interludes or side chapters. However, while the wider war isn’t the direct focus of the book, it ends up painting a picture of the post-Endor war between the falling Galactic Empire and the rising New Republic as being more concentrated, violent, and viscous than any fan ever assumed. Consider that Life Debt is most likely set between six and ten months post-Endor. In this time, we see the Empire lose over half of its Star Destroyers and almost every single Super Star Destroyer. The Core isn’t just contested, it’s already solidly in New Republic hands. I’ll note that the Core is considered safe enough New Republic territory to base the new government there a mere THREE months after Endor. Chandrila, Corellia, Hosnian Prime – all in New Republic Space. Kuat, fortress world and primary shipbuilder, captured by New Republic forces. Coruscant itself is in the midst of a mini-civil war between dwindling Imperial forces (mostly ISB) and a growing insurgency backed by the New Republic.

All of this. IN. LESS. THAN. ONE. YEAR.

The potential opened in these stories can and should be tapped to its fullest potential. It’s encouraging to see that the Story Group sees the value in this, with Insider magazine already announcing mini-stories that will cover the battles of Kuat and Jakku from the perspective of Blade Squadron. We’ve already seen it in Shattered Empire too, with the battle of Naboo being shown after a reference in Lost Stars. The future for more stories seems to be very bright indeed.

AckbarTFABen: Let’s pick up on Ackbar. This is a character who, perhaps more than any other, can really benefit from the film developments of both the Clone Wars and the new trilogy and tie it all together. How is Ackbar able to so quickly become an Admiral of the Rebellion? He would have fought in the Clone Wars, he would have seen no shortage of combat there. Then, as it becomes clear the Empire has to be opposed, so does he take it up once more. Something we know he does too thirty years after the Battle of Jakku.

This also opens another rarely used door in Legends – flashbacks. It would seem an obvious device but it stood out, in part, in X-Wing: Mercy Kill, so much because it was not used often. Flashbacks to the Yuuzhan Vong War were even rarer, only being done elsewhere in the Star Wars Legacy comic. At the same time we have the Rebellion being more aggressive in at least two time periods: Post-Endor and, more surprisingly, post-Yavin. Now, what if the experience of going on the offensive against the Empire in the latter period – and the subsequent Imperial defense and counter-offensive, informed Ackbar’s post-Endor war strategy?

This would allow both parallel tales, but also tales that cross time. The success of Lost Stars also indicates an audience level of interest that is more than sufficient. And then there is the recent Rebels season three trailer that revealed Thrawn is going to turn up – why not have Ackbar use some of the strategies Thrawn used but against the Empire? (OK, yes, I admit I just want the order to be given of ‘deploy the Thrawn pincer’.)

The biggest challenge for any Fleet Command tale, like Ackbar leading a fleet to destroy the Eclipse for instance, is to make it more than a cold battle of statistics. In Ackbar, I’d say Star Wars has a character lead that can transcend the statistical aspect and render the battles as being as much about the beings that wage them, as the weapons they wield.

Nick: Ackbar, despite the fact that many casual fans would simply see him as a military leader, actually has a depth to his character that would make him an excellent focal point (or one of the focal points) for the type of sweeping naval campaign story we are both in favor of. Ackbar is a naval warrior and respected for his tactical & strategic genius, but those attributes aren’t what would make him ideal for this story. Ackbar possesses a certain gravitas of character, especially when it comes to his views on the very wars he is trained to fight. As he says in Life Debt, “Nobody wins a war. Best we can do is to find a way to stop fighting.”

That is why I’ve found his character so compelling for decades. Ackbar knows the cost of war and he doesn’t take it lightly. The depth of his character only grows when you take into account the deep level of loyalty he shows to his friends. Take his friendship with Leia. In Life Debt alone, he refuses to allow a meeting to take place behind her back (notifying her of it) and risks his career to save her and liberate the Wookiees during the battle of Kashyyyk. It is moments like these where we see not just the foundations of the future Resistance, but the bonds that unite this old Rebel warriors and his friends.

A story or series of stories detailing the campaigns of the Rebellion or New Republic would have two excellent focal points in Ackbar and fan favorite Wedge Antilles. Both characters have a lot in common. They are warriors, they are devoted to their causes and governments, they view war as something that should only be waged as a last report, and most importantly they understand the impact it has on the lives of those that serve alongside them. They are very human characters, ones that the reader can instantly sympathize with and experience alongside their individual triumphs and tribulations. To pick up on your point Ben, it would make any grand sweeping war story less about statistics and scale and more about the people involved in them.

Ben: With characters like Wedge and Ackbar in the frame, it kind of begs the question why there have been so relatively few stories of their actual wars. True, X-Wing racked up ten books, a dozen if you count the NJO duology Enemy Lines, but that’s a fraction of the total Legends output. December will see the release of Rogue One in cinemas and I’m wondering if it might legitimize the genre as part of Star Wars in the audience perception.

There are a couple of weaknesses in Star Wars’ general story tendencies for doing a war tale that may explain why it hasn’t been done much before. On the one hand, jeopardy is wanted, but so too are characters to attach to and follow, without them becoming corpses. The films tend to opt for last-ditch, million-to-one plans. (If it’s 999,000-2? They’re screwed.) Oh and the good side must always be outnumbered and outgunned, so ensuring underdog status.

Why are these aspects problematic? Well, for a post-Endor story where the New Republic is ascendant, the risk is there is too little sense of stakes, combine that with the knowledge of destination and people wonder what there is to hook their interest. In this respect Rogue One might prove that this isn’t something to be concerned with, if you make the story good enough that people forget their chronological knowledge. The trick being to throw in new stuff without losing overall consistency with the later chronology; the prequels tried too much of the former and lost the latter, but then Lucas didn’t seem to see the value in being consistent with his own work!

A successful attack in war will be the very essence of unfairness. The enemy will be hit where they are weakest, where the attackers have an advantage and can quickly kill them all and move on. The success of Battlefront: Twilight Company suggests there is an audience for this, one Rogue One might build on further. It may be able to do more than preach at the converted and expand the appeal, if the current creators of the new material have the nerve to take the opportunity.

Nick: It’s true- a sense of jeopardy and true underdog status is something that has been part of human storytelling for millennia. Our history is rooted in it, be it 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, the Royal Air Force during the Blitz, or the remnants of the Pacific Fleet at Midway. This makes storytelling in the battle genre a very tricky nut to crack. You essentially have a battle that is all about scale, or lack thereof. In the old EU, it would be more common to read about a Rebel squadron of pilots going up against dozens of nameless/faceless pilots. Throw in a few Star Destroyers and you get the underdog status fans crave. However, this leads to the universe feeling very small and not very “galactic”. On the flip side, writing a battle where the underdogs have hundreds or even thousands of ships in the face of hundreds of thousands or even millions of ships creates a scale that is VERY hard to capture. Very few writers have the chops to do this.

That is why I favor a blended approach. Battles can be titanic and campaigns vast in scale, but the story can still focus on a small group. I think this approach would work exceptionally well in stories set around or before Rogue One. The nascent Rebellion is just forming and centralized authority in Mon Mothma and Bail Organa is still a bit tenuous. It is the moment where all the galaxy’s rebel factions have to decide to put the cause first, their own worlds second. Worlds as diverse and varied as Chandrila, Alderaan, Mon Cala, Sullust, Onderon, Ryloth, Garel, and countless others have to learn how to work as one. The stories that can be told during this pre-ANH period work on two levels. One, it allows for tension on multiple fronts. Not just due to the various rebels being outnumbered a thousand to one by the might of the Empire. They also have to learn how to work together, to fight together, and to ultimately become one organization, one cause. A good author could focus on these tensions, while having the backdrop of the story be around a multi-sector campaign.

Keeping the focus from pre-Rogue One to Return of the Jedi also allows for stories that show a clear progression. Scattered rebels unite, form the Alliance to Restore the Republic, and then begin the long, hard, costly haul to regain their freedoms. They are the underdogs, but thanks to the NEU the scale of their forces (and those of the Galactic Empire) allows for some big, fairly even battles. In light of the information we have about Rogue One and the events that happen later in Battlefront: Twilight Company, we could be on the cusp of some storytelling greatness. I suspect that we will be seeing more large scale war stories in the future, not less.

3 thoughts to “Life Debt: Redrawing the Map”

  1. And the Interludes open up even more story possibilities, like the Acolytes of the beyond, Coruscant civil war, pirate with a Super Star Destroyer, etc.

  2. Late to the party again! I think there are a number of real-world examples of large-scale military engagements that ramp up the drama, despite significant disparities in the power of the two sides.

    The hunt for the Bismarck in May 1941 would be a fun model for a large-scale Star Wars story – perhaps Ackbar and co have to hunt the Eclipse as it attempts to fly through the Core Worlds on a large-scale raid. The larger Leyte Gulf campaign would be an interesting inspiration for a larger-scale fleet action – multiple battles, plenty of deception and confusion, land-sea-air coordination, and some surprising twists and turns driven by the tremendous bravery of the combatants.

    Both of those stories can be effectively told from the Allied perspective, despite the fact that in both cases the Allies had way more stuff. I think it can be done!

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