Let’s Talk About The High Republic’s Republic Problem

This piece contains spoilers for the second wave of The High Republic,
including major spoilers for Out of the Shadows.

I’ve spent a lot of time defending Light of the Jedi over the past few months.

Not so much the book itself—most of the people I’ve spoken with were at least satisfied with it if not blown away—but specifically its tone where the Republic is concerned. In going quite so far out of its way to underline that this was a new! era! of optimism and belief in the government and people working together and so on and so forth, it’s fair to say that it ended up with a bit of a, um, West Wing problem. Watching people of good faith and peak competence run a government can be quite stirring if you’re prepared to take that premise at face value—but for a lot of people, simply being told that Lina Soh is a good chancellor just isn’t enough.

Especially not when the government she runs, stronger than Valorum’s though it may be, still plainly has its problems. How could a strong, benevolent chancellor cooperate with groups like the Byne Guild that thrive on indentured servitude? How could she not see how nakedly propagandistic a lavish Republic Fair would appear to people barely scraping by on the Rim, people too preoccupied with murderous raiders to worry about their planet getting its own Biscuit Baron? Worse, how could she not see how appealing a target that fair would be to those same raiders?

I gave Charles Soule a lot of leeway where Light‘s tone was concerned because it had a unique role as the first novel of a huge new initiative—the nonstop recitations of “we are all the Republic” made me think less of The West Wing than of Han Solo ruminating on the death of Chewbacca in Vector Prime:

“They had been living on the very edge of disaster for so very long, fighting battles, literally, for decades, running from bounty hunters and assassins. (…) So many times, it seemed, one or more of them should have died.

And yet, in a strange way, that close flirting with death had only made Han think them all the more invulnerable. They could dodge any blaster, or piggyback on the side of an asteroid, or climb out a garbage chute, or…

But not anymore. Now now. The bubble of security was gone, so suddenly, blown apart by a diving moon.

(…) to Han Solo, the galaxy suddenly seemed a more dangerous place by far.”

Light is a strong book on its own terms, don’t get me wrong—but like Vector before it, it’s also a marketing exercise; a flashing neon sign signaling to new or lapsed readers that THIS IS DIFFERENT FROM ALL THOSE OTHER STAR WARS BOOKS, AND HERE’S HOW.

I do think the High Republic creative team recognized how that was going to come across to some people, just like I think they recognized that the Republic Fair was also going to smack of colonialism to a lot of people. But while Cavan Scott’s The Rising Storm makes a point of demonstrating Soh’s willingness to roll up her sleeves and risk her own safety in the name of those oft-repeated ideals, I’m starting to think it’s a mistake to dwell on her at all.

We’re not used to seeing good governance in Star Wars, so it’s hard to blame The High Republic team if their earliest attempts to depict it haven’t worked for everyone. Even when the so-called Big Three defeated the Empire and established a New Republic, things fell apart within a generation or so (in both continuities), because the only alternative was depicting an era of stability, and if the galaxy is stable, is it still Star Wars?

This time, though, the government has to stay together—for a while, at least. The third wave’s ominous titles notwithstanding, the Nihil and the Drengir will eventually be defeated and the Republic will prosper in their wake, to such an extent that this time is spoken of as the “High Republic”, the pinnacle of an entire millennium. How do you tell that story in a way that feels of a piece with the Skywalker saga?

I think we can find an answer in the original trilogy.

The main characters of A New Hope were not in charge of anything. The most important one by a wide margin was Imperial Senator Leia Organa, who enjoys that status for about two scenes before losing both the senate itself and the planet she represented. The importance meter only falls from there—Luke Skywalker was a farmboy, who for all his eventual significance could very easily have lived his whole life right there on that farm; Han Solo was an outlaw with a bounty on his head and a fake last name. And these three were supposed to defeat the Empire?

It’s easy to cast your heroes as powerless nobodies when the antagonists are the people actually running the government, but I think there’s something integral in that framing that could work in any era. The Alliance to Restore the Republic was a collective project, and in A New Hope in particular it lives or dies by the efforts of dozens of people. What makes that story the template for an entire saga, an entire franchise, is not a few powerful people nobly shouldering the responsibility of saving the galaxy, but countless people with no power making the decision to help anyway.

It strikes me that those same people, granted better circumstances, are what might truly elevate a government to a golden age.

A truly strong government is a group effort; if it’s lucky enough to have a great leader at the top that’s not the cause of its strength but a reflection of it.

People like Keven Tarr, a planetary technician who, with support from his government, figured out how to predict hyperspace emergences. People like Rhil Dairo, a journalist who, with support from the Jedi, figured out how to breach the Nihil’s jamming on Valo and send out a call for help. Like Ram Jomaram, who eventually disabled the jamming altogether.[1]Ram is a Jedi himself, granted—but Avar Kriss the kid ain’t. Perhaps even like Velko Jahen, a minor administrator on Starlight Beacon whose ongoing story has so far been relegated to Star Wars Insider but whose career I’ll be watching with great interest.[2]On this note I would add that if you’re interested in the Insider stories but $6-10 per story is too steep for you, Sal Perales of the Rogue Rebels helpfully pointed out to me that they can be read … Continue reading

A truly strong government is a group effort; if it’s lucky enough to have a great leader at the top that’s not the cause of its strength but a reflection of it. If that’s what we’re meant to be seeing in The High Republic, rather than the beginning of a long decline, then Lina Soh is a supporting character in that story—or at least she should be. As, frankly, should high-ranking Jedi like Avar Kriss and Stellan Gios.

I do think the creative team gets this to an extent; Keven Tarr could have been a one-off but Rhil Dairo suggests that randos getting plucked from the margins to save the day is going to be a consistent thing in this era. That’s a great start, but I would go one step further and suggest that those people should be the meat of this story, and the Jedi should be the seasoning—instead of the other way around.

Better. Not perfect, but better.

The young-adult novels, I will say, are working much closer to that template. They may be packed with Jedi themselves but so far those Jedi have been young, insecure, or both. And they’re at least balanced if not outnumbered by characters like the Vessel crew in Into the Dark and Sylvestri Yarrow’s assorted relations in Out of the Shadows, characters with every bit as much potential as a Tarr or a Dairo. The problem is that those books’ scale simply can’t compete with the Del Rey books—and even if each has some pretty important developments for the era as a whole, by focusing more tightly on small groups of younger characters, the stakes can’t help but feel lower and more tangential.

That’s not to say there shouldn’t be a place for those more personal stories—that’s what the YA genre is best at. But what I’d like to see is those same casts, demographically if not necessarily the same characters, shouldering the weight of the big Del Rey stakes as well, while the Masters and politicians are oh-so-unfortunately tied up offscreen; kind of like how Avar Kriss is ostensibly leading the Drengir offensive in the High Republic comic series but the story is primarily told from Keeve Trennis’s point of view. Of course, Keeve is still a Jedi; are Leox Gyasi and Jordanna Sparkburn up to the task of repelling an entire Nihil Tempest? Probably not! Sounds like a great story, though, doesn’t it? Much better than Stellan Gios getting all weepy because his party burned down.

While the goal here is to demonstrate the Republic’s true strength, though, that project isn’t limited to Republic citizens. As Jay Shah argued earlier this month, the Nihil haven’t come packaged with a great deal of nuance thus far, and when all the villains want is to take drugs and do crime it fosters an impression that no reasonable opposition to the heroes could exist. Marchion Ro’s personal motivations remain stubbornly opaque to us, but in Shadows Jordanna—who has suffered mightily from the Nihil’s attacks—finally says what you’d think the Jedi would have been saying all this time instead of just jumping in their Vectors:

“…we all want a place to belong. The Nihil have given the castoffs and losers of the galaxy a home. They’ve given people with nothing something, and that is a very powerful thing.”

People with nothing. Powerless nobodies, in other words—if a galaxy-spanning Republic truly has something to offer the people of the Outer Rim it’s not a bunch of floating gift shops, it’s a more appealing range of life choices.

For my money, the most interesting nobody so far is introduced late in Shadows, in the form of Sylvestri’s mother Chancey Yarrow, renegade hyperspace physicist. Chancey isn’t just some burnout who chose the Nihil over life in an Outer Rim slum, she’s a genius who deigned to sign up with the Nihil because the Republic wouldn’t facilitate her work. A mirror version of Keven Tarr, you might even say.

It’s a bit too soon to cast Chancey as either misunderstood visionary or mad scientist, but no better vehicle exists, I think, for dramatizing a true victory over the-Nihil-as-cultural-force than in the Yarrows. Far removed from the platitude-spouting protagonists of Light of the Jedi, Sylvestri begins the novel with some not-unwarranted reservations about the Republic, and her time on Coruscant in Shadows doesn’t exactly dispel them; if Soh’s government is as good as it’s supposed to be I’d like to see them prove it by earning the support of characters like Sylvestri—perhaps the only person who could then convince Chancey to return to the fold and use her powers for good.

A child saving their parent from the dark side: what could be more Star Wars than that?

1 Ram is a Jedi himself, granted—but Avar Kriss the kid ain’t.
2 On this note I would add that if you’re interested in the Insider stories but $6-10 per story is too steep for you, Sal Perales of the Rogue Rebels helpfully pointed out to me that they can be read digitally via the Libby app with nothing but a local library card. I recently caught up that way myself and it could not have been simpler.