Archive for Imperial Court Circular

Grand Admiral Thrawn: Separating Man From Myth

thrawn-lores

As the primary antagonist of the inaugural nineties Expanded Universe trilogy, Grand Admiral Thrawn presented a different sort of Imperial villain – one who was intellectual, collected, and yet not darkly sinister. Thrawn stands out and his Empire seems to take on a different tone from the Empire of Palpatine. He presents a better way – order without cruelty, governance without megalomania. Inspired by Napoleon, Rommel, Alexander the Great, and others, Grand Admiral Thrawn is nigh-invincible – defeated but for circumstances – and with him dies the dream of a better Empire. But is all of that true? We’re a pretty big fan of Thrawn – in fact, he’s one of the early Imperial characters we first latched onto as a villain worthy of respect and admiration (having read Kevin J. Anderson and Mike Stackpole prior to Zahn). He was unlike any Star Wars villain to come before or since, and Thrawn very rightly generated a lot of buzz and excitement when his return to the Star Wars canon was announced at Celebration Europe this July. We wanted to say that first as a bit of a disclaimer – that we’re a big fan of Thrawn – before getting to the gist of this article: which is that Grand Admiral Thrawn is tremendously overrated. Now wait – this isn’t one of those “you should feel bad for liking this, and here’s all the reasons why you’re wrong” pieces. The thing about Thrawn is that he’s not perfect – he is flawed, and has made some pretty colossal blunders just in the Thrawn trilogy set of books.

Both in and out of universe, people tend to assume Thrawn is perfect and unbeatable. Out of universe, that can occasionally manifest into excessive fannishness or dislike for a character that is “better” than the film villains. In universe, that manifests in characters assuming that Thrawn is completely beyond the abilities of any of the protagonists to defeat. But Thrawn isn’t invincible – far from it. He makes assumptions, he makes convoluted plans that fail when the slightest thread is unraveled, and he ultimately creates a system that cannot outlast his own demise. He’s also every bit the villain Darth Vader and the Emperor were – he supports the Empire’s mission, and even though later EU books try to put his decision to serve the Emperor into a noble light, the truth is that he literally made a deal with the devil and agreed to serve him.

Here’s the trick though: that’s what makes Thrawn work, and that’s what makes him so good. He operates at a higher tempo than most of his opponents, and gambles with hunches and convoluted plans where the pay-off is so spectacular that it looks like magic. Thrawn not only plays to his opponents’ psychology through his characteristic artistically-informed military tactics, but by causing them to doubt themselves and their own abilities by believing that Thrawn would be aware of their every move. Thrawn uses his own reputation and his opponent’s self-doubts as a weapon, and that’s rather more impressive than if he were simply an all-seeing mastermind. Thrawn’s a genius, but he’s also part charlatan – something that Timothy Zahn himself played off of in his sequel Hand of Thrawn duology that ended the Bantam run of the EU. It’s something we hope to see again in Star Wars Rebels – the mastermind and the trickster, whose evil is of a different shade but nonetheless recognizable as such.

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Rival Visionaries: RAE SLOANE, Leia Organa, and the Future of the Galaxy

aftermath-lifedebtWe’re so excited to write about Life Debt that we’re doing so on our phone, since we’re currently away from our computer for a couple weeks. Oh and fair warning, there will be spoilers after the cut – we won’t spoil the end or plot beats, but we will discuss characters.

RAE SLOANE was always going to be the subject of this piece — she’s far and away my favorite character of the new canon. I’m not the only one – she’s very popular with fans: Megan Crouse and Catrina Dennis have both written great pieces about her recently. Her popularity extends to the authors, as Chuck Wendig, Greg Weisman, and Jason Fry have all used a character originally scribed by John Jackson Miller in their stories. It’s been an organic thing – we don’t think there was any pre-planned intention to make her the central recurring character of the new canon, a character some compare to the old EU’s Pellaeon (we tend to think she’s far more interesting, but we disliked Pellaeon even back in the EU days). She’s had a full character arc as a result of her multiple appearances, and here she is at the apogee of her career: a Grand Admiral of the Galactic Empire. While she started as an interesting Imperial character, she essentially represents the Empire now.

Before reading Life Debt, our idea for this piece was to compare SLOANE’s position in the Empire (and the arc that led her there) with Pellaeon’s. The comparisons the Aftermath epilogue caused folks to make between those characters and the mysterious admirals who commanded them made it seem like a good idea, and they do share some general plot beats. While we’ll still talk about that a bit, the novel made us realize it’s more interesting to compare SLOANE with Leia – both as characters as well as visionaries towards a new galactic order.

Both Leia and SLOANE came to their own conclusions after Endor. Aftermath opened with Leia’s speech to the galaxy – a speech announcing a new era and ushering in the New Republic. SLOANE realized during the battle itself that the Empire must adapt, change if it was to recover from that debacle – “Levers of Power” and Aftermath neatly show the development of that thinking. Both Leia and SLOANE have interesting relationships with mentor figures – Mon Mothma and the mysterious fleet admiral respectively – and those relationships are reflected in the plans they have for the galaxy.

If Aftermath was a space opera romp in a backwater region of the Outer Rim, Life Debt is a story with significantly higher stakes. Grand Admiral RAE SLOANE and Princess (and General) Leia Organa represent two different visions of a new galaxy. We see them struggle to convince others of the rightness of their ideas, just as they struggle with the opposing side in the war. They’re both very compelling – as characters and as representatives of an ideal. It’s little wonder these characters are my favorite film and new canon characters respectively. For the rest of this discussion, let’s start getting into the plot… Spoilers from here out.

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Gray Matters II: BLOODLINE – A New Republic Costs More Than A Used One

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There’s been a sense from some fans that The Force Awakens and its background material indicates that the New Republic has been a failure, that all the heroes fought for has been for naught. Not everyone thinks that – Nick previously wrote to take stock of the New Republic as seen in the context of TFA and the Journey to TFA books and his verdict was a positive one. But since then, Bloodline has been released and given us a great deal of context about the dysfunction that paralyzed the New Republic in the years leading up to the film. Sarah discussed the role extremism and partisanship played in impeding the New Republic’s governance, and Sarah, Rocky, and yours truly discussed how these irreconcilable differences stemmed from fear and mistrust. After all that, one might be forgiven for assuming that the rosy view of the New Republic was definitely wrong and that TFA showed the demise of a government that was at best a failure and at worst, doomed. But is that the right lesson to take from Bloodline? We don’t think it is – Bloodline simply showed democracy as it is, warts and all.

As promised with our first “Gray Matters” piece on Lost Stars and its realistic and human portrayal of those who serve the Galactic Empire, here’s our follow-up on how to realistically portray the good guys. And just like the first piece, the article didn’t really come together until Claudia Gray wrote a novel perfectly demonstrating what we wanted to talk about: how democracy is portrayed in Star Wars and why it’s important that it be treated with nuance. As with the first Gray Matters piece, the goal is to make it clear that there isn’t and shouldn’t be a black-and-white sense of the New Republic – complexity and nuance is more interesting than unmitigated success and failure. » Read more..

Escape Pod: Imperial Defectors and the Rand Ecliptic

randMoral relativity is hard to do in Star Wars, because it’s a tale of good versus evil. However, sophisticated storytelling expects that things are rarely black and white. Add in the influence of fans, and it’s not surprising that villains end up being quite popular in Star Wars. The Galactic Empire is probably one of the most popular villains in fiction, and so it’s easy to see why there’s an interest in presenting the Empire as a little more nuanced than purely evil. This always runs the risk of whitewashing Imperial atrocities, or presenting the “good Imperial” – the person who is certainly not a Rebel, but also not a bad person. We’re personally always suspect of the idea of the “good Imperial,” because while we very much enjoy reading about Imperials we also don’t want to sacrifice the theming of the Star Wars saga.

The new Star Wars canon has done a good job addressing this issue so far, from realistically portraying how people end up buying into the Imperial system in Lost Stars, to exploring the loss of innocence and seduction of evil in the Servants of the Empire series, to examining the mindset of an Imperial Security Bureau agent in Rebels. At the end of the day though, the people who stick with the Empire are usually either delusional, corrupted, or participants in the Imperial system – at least those who are involved in furthering its goals. But not always. There are certainly the rare Imperials who serve with honor and distinction, and try to refuse the worst orders – even if they’re not “good” compared to the heroes of the saga, they might be good by Imperial standards. But there are also those who realize their decency isn’t compatible with Imperial service, it’s these people we want to talk about today: Imperial defectors.

In the Legends EU, many prominent Rebel characters – including film characters such as Jan Dodonna, Crix Madine, Biggs Darklighter, and Derek “Hobbie” Klivian – began their careers as dutiful Imperial officers. EU mainstays such as Kyle Katarn, Soontir Fel, and Tycho Celchu also started out as Imperial officers. These officers defected to the Rebellion when they realized that the Empire wasn’t living up to its own honorable ideals, often in response to atrocities they were ordered to commit. Biggs and Hobbie defected almost right out of the Academy, taking their ship – the Rand Ecliptic – with them. Imagine what other defectors flew with them – heroic, goodie-two-shoes aren’t the only kind of people who might’ve left the Empire’s service and we’re missing out on good characters if we think that. Lost Stars and Aftermath both gave us examples of flawed, human Imperial officers who defected to the Rebellion – but there’s such storytelling potential in exploring the different types of people who might come to a realization that Imperial service just isn’t for them.

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Evil Takes Many Forms: The Genesis of the First Order

The-Force-Awakens-Frame[1](needless to say, spoilers for The Force Awakens ensue)

The First Order is the new villain of the Star Wars saga, and at first glance it looks a lot like the old villain. The First Order has the Imperial aesthetic down pat, if a bit further refined with more technological whiz-bang, sleeker starship architecture, and stormtroopers that appear “designed by Apple® in California.” Due to the film’s preference not to overexplain lore, audiences could be forgiven for thinking the Empire was still in charge. But there’s sufficient context in the film – and certainly in the background material – to give people the idea that the First Order is something different, a refashioned iteration of the Empire seeking to get back into power. It’s like the Empire, but different – changed. They’ve got the same trappings, but are something else – more intense, more driven, more fanatical. Some might say that they’re a little more black (cf. white), a little more overtly Nazi, than the Galactic Empire was. They are – but that’s not due to simplified storytelling, but because it’s the natural direction for the First Order to go. We hope to explain why.

During the cantina scene in The Force Awakens, Maz Kanata explains: (paraphrased) “Throughout the ages, evil has taken many forms: the Sith, the Empire, and now the First Order.” These forms of evil track with the enemies of the film trilogies, and while it’s tempting to say that they’re ultimately the same thing (the Sith create the Empire, which in turn lives on in the First Order) that elides the essential differences between them. The forms that evil takes depends on the role of evil in the saga and the context in which evil develops. To characterize these forms with a simple one-word descriptor, let’s describe the forms of evil as subversion, domination, and purification. Now – the villains of Star Wars have a lot more nuance than that, but those three words are a useful roadmap for charting the path from the “phantom menace” of the Sith in the Prequels to the resurgent First Order of the incipient Sequels.

Evil is not isolated to one or two villains, but acts upon the characters (primary or ancillary) in the story. One useful lens of looking at it is the evolution of the iconic white-armored soldiers of the Star Wars galaxy. Clonetroopers are bred to order, and yet develop individuality. Imperial stomtroopers, on the other hand, start out as recruits and conscripts and have their individuality steadily eroded away in the form of dehumanizing numerical designations as if they were automata (Edge of the Galaxy presents stormtroopers as emotionless husks, while the stormtroopers of Twilight Company still embrace humanity underneath their indoctrination). By the time of the First Order, however, early Imperial experiments in raising stormtroopers from birth have come to fruition and people who started out as normal human beings turn into unthinking tools of evil “raised to do one thing.” The Sith subverted a Republic, the Empire dominated a galaxy, and the First Order seeks to purify itself and everything else.

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