Razor’s Edge: Why I Struggle With Star Wars “What-Ifs”

The embodiment of evil in the galaxy lies disarmed at Mace Windu’s feet.

Ravaged by his own reflected lightning, Palpatine whimpers helplessly. Anakin Skywalker, standing uncomfortably close, insists that he live to stand trial. Mace swats the notion away: “He’s too dangerous to be left alive!”

Maybe he is, maybe he’s not. Maybe he’s faking his current weakness, maybe he’s not. With the entire galaxy hanging in the balance, Mace refuses to take that chance. After a moment of agonized uncertainty, he swings his lightsaber.

The saber connects. Palpatine has wagered everything on Anakin’s loyalty, and dies knowing he’s lost.

What happens next?

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AUs—alternate universes—are having a moment right now.

This is mostly Marvel’s doing, with the first season of Loki introducing several “variants” of the titular character and What If…? now doing the legwork to show how those variants might come about by changing one or two little details from the history we already know. Whether coincidentally or otherwise, Star Wars is now poised to dive heavily into AUs for the first time since D-Day with Star Wars: Visions, an anthology of anime shorts untethered by canon—some diverging in small ways (if at all), some existing in wholly different realities with only aesthetic and tonal connections to Star Wars as we know it.

While we’ve seen lots of ambiguously-canon stories over the years—from the recent LEGO games and specials all the way back to “Skippy the Jedi Droid” in the Star Wars Tales comics—that material has almost always been set in the familiar continuity, with its ambiguity stemming solely from a comedic tone. Only once before, with Star Wars Infinities, has the franchise so pointedly and prominently delved into AU storytelling. Where in Visions continuity is ultimately beside the point, Infinities was much more in line with Marvel’s What If…? model—picking a single point of divergence from the story of each of the three original films and then spinning out a whole comic miniseries from how that divergence might change the story.

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Escape Pod: Mistress Mnemos and the Storytelling Framing Device

One of the cleverest, most self-referential character arcs in the original Star Wars trilogy is C-3PO’s ability as a storyteller. In the first movie he claims to be “not very good at telling stories,” but in the final film he recounts the heroes’ adventures to the Ewok village with a delightful blend of humanlike charisma and droidlike sound effects. Either modesty or a lack of confidence was holding our anxious droid back, and as masks fall, it turns out that Threepio can make stories interesting (to everyone except Han, anyway). Vader is actually Anakin; lightsabers are actually useless; and Threepio is actually very good at telling stories.

But what if he isn’t?

Mistress Mnemos is a room-size supercomputer whose mission is to store all the Rebel Alliance’s data, whether entertaining or not. She debuted in Russ Manning’s newspaper comic strips in 1979, and has never even been referenced since. This in spite of her incredible potential as comic relief, femme and non-humanoid droid representation, and commentary on the nature of storytelling itself. As she is built into the walls of a secret Rebel stronghold and literally plugged into the story’s narrator, Mnemos is the platonic ideal of a captive audience.

As brilliant as she was back then, I think Mnemos could serve an even more important role now. She protests Threepio’s excessive, self-centered tangents — “My banks are overflowing with trivia as it is!” — and that was in 1979, decades before “Star Wars trivia” was the subject of board games, parties, and masters’ theses.

Even her name has aged in a fantastically relevant way: the prefix “mnemo-” means “memory,” one of the most vital themes for a franchise so rooted in nostalgia, so backwards- and inwards-looking, with even its freshest new stories haunted (and frequently visited) by the ghosts of the Expanded Universe. Every spinoff of the original trilogy must contend with its audience’s presumed memories, and that presumption often bleeds into the stories’ themes and the struggles of their characters: Revan’s amnesia, Anakin’s dreams, Yoda’s burnt library. As the audience, we remember the story, while the characters can forget, or try to stop it, or need to move on. But Mnemos must remember, too, no matter how unhappy it makes her.

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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. It’s 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.

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The Rising Storm’s Republic Fair: Concept Versus Execution

Wave two of the High Republic series revolves around the centerpiece of the Republic Fair, modeled on the 18th-to-20th century concept of the World’s Fair. In real life, these fairs were huge expositions designed to showcase the wonders of science, technology, and the globe in an era where most of the population could only see the rest of the world through illustrations in books. Star Wars often uses the design vocabulary of real-world history and times gone past, and the world’s fair concept fits right into the idea of the Republic of yesteryear, full of innovation and optimism.

The opening wave of The High Republic showed us that despite appearances, all isn’t right with the galaxy. The second wave of novels shows us that the galaxy’s troubles are just beginning – the Republic and Jedi may blaze with light and life, but trouble is on the horizon. Cavan Scott’s The Rising Storm may just as easily have been named Before the Storm, had that name not already been taken by an existing Star Wars Legends novel.

The Rising Storm is all about the Republic Fair. Personally, I think the Republic Fair is a great concept – both in-universe and out-of-universe. In-universe, Chancellor Lina Soh has a pretty wonderful idea to unify the galaxy and showcase the benefits of the shared galactic government through a showcase of shared science and culture – but was this really the right time? Out-of-universe, putting the real-world idea of a global exposition into Star Wars was an inspired idea – but is the idea used to its full potential?

I think the answer is “mostly”, but there are some avenues I wish the story had explored to make the High Republic setting seem more interesting. The in-universe shortcomings of the fair – that it might not be the best time – are actually great for the story! But there are some ideas that aren’t raised in-universe, which makes me a little disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, I still think the Republic Fair is a marvelous idea and I enjoyed The Rising Storm for the most part! My excitement is just tempered slightly by roads not trodden that would have made better use of the High Republic – and I won’t beat around the bush, it has a lot to do with the fact that the real-life World’s Fairs were also in the shadow of a gilded age of industry and colonialism and we see little sign of that in The Rising Storm. Maybe that’s not the story they set out to tell – but it’s an unfortunate omission.

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Victory’s Price: Deromanticizing the War Hero

The intro is spoiler-free, but there will be MAJOR SPOILERS after the cut.

When Alphabet Squadron was first announced, we expected it to be like the old X-Wing series from the Expanded Universe. We quickly learned that while Alexander Freed was inspired by those novels, his story would not follow the familiar pilot story arc that we had come to expect. The third and final novel in the trilogy, Victory’s Price, completes the arc of the trilogy and shows that Alexander Freed is not afraid to deromanticize the type of military sci-fi that has been part of the Star Wars DNA since the very beginning.

Though Star Wars is largely space fantasy, World War II-inspired flight sequences and especially the books and comics have drawn on swashbuckling military sci-fi themes too. Pilots are heroic rule-breakers and soldiers are valorous and noble. Even the bad guys are heroic and noble, but they’re just too darn loyal to evil politicians and wizards who misuse their talents. Freed engages with these ideas and does something different, but not just because his story subverts our expectations for the sake of surprise. No, instead, his books – especially Victory’s Price – expose traditional war story ideals to critique, delivering a more nuanced vision of war.

There are still heroes and villains, but war is brutal and traumatic. As the title makes clear: victory in war has a price, and the price is borne not just by those who didn’t make it, but by those who did. Freed isn’t the first Star Wars author to focus on the human element of warfare: the late Aaron Allston (it still hurts to write that) was exceptional at showing how characters cope with the traumas of war and deal with the personal costs of a lifetime of fighting, albeit interlaced with his trademark humor and kind storytelling. But Victory’s Price really eschews the triumphalism of space adventure, or exposes it as hollow. Many of us read the Wilfred Owen poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” in school, contrasting the “noble” language of Horace’s pro-war ode with the empty horror of the first World War – Victory’s Price reminded me strongly of that poem.

As for the Empire? The honorable soldiers, long suffering under a regime unworthy of them, no longer exist. Victory’s Price is an incredibly timely novel about what it means to sell your soul in service to evil, what brings people to do these things, and what society should do about it afterwards. Alexander Freed writes about Imperials with nuance but without getting stuck in the rut of grey moral relativism. This novel doesn’t spoon-feed or preach to the reader, but instead asks them to think and engage with deep questions. There aren’t any easy answers, but the reader who engages with Victory’s Price will find that it shines with moral clarity even underneath the blood and muck of war.

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