HEAVY SPOILERS: ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE
Light and darkness
When Disney bought Lucasfilm and brought Star Wars back from the obscurity of tie-in media and into the 21st century of cinema through The Force Awakens, one of the most commonly heard complaints was that the movie was too safe. Unlike the prequels, that for all their failings had tried to explore new narrative territory, the first movie in the sequel trilogy seemed happy to give us three fantastic new characters and then drop them in the middle of common places, well-worn storylines, and a neverending series of cameos and winks to the past.
While it can certainly be argued that this nostalgic exercise was exactly what Star Wars needed to be a commercial powerhouse once again, Rogue One takes the opposite approach: it takes place in a very safe point in the timeline, one where X-Wings and stormtroopers and even Darth Vader are common place; it takes one of the most often told stories in Star Wars lore, that of the damned theft of the damned Death Star plans; and what it gives us is the most audacious Star Wars movie so far, one more than willing to alienate its typical family-friendly audience for the sake of telling the story it wants to tell.
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It’s a unique time in the life of Catalyst: A Rogue One Novel. The book is, as the name indicates, a direct tie-in to Rogue One, a movie which is not even out in theaters for another few weeks. We still do not know the extent of how the two works will tie in together, what from one will show up in the other or how much one work may lean on the other for support in character development or story. Thus, this will be an examination of the book on its own merits rather than as a tie-in.
Let’s start with overall impressions before we get into what might be considered spoiler territory. Catalyst is written by James Luceno in the grand tradition of Luceno Star Wars novels, in that it ties to the larger events of a film or other project while still telling its own story. Catalyst is very much a prequel, but it tells its own tale well enough to not need the help of the film to support it. It does, however, give context to larger events by taking us behind the scenes, as it were. In this case, we go behind the scenes of the creation of the Empire’s first superweapon.
Through the novel we follow three characters, Galen Erso and his wife Lyra, along with their “friend” and greatest supporter Orson Krennic. The relationship between the three is complicated and ever-evolving as the galaxy spins, events unfold and everything changes around them. We follow our dysfunctional trio from the midst of the Clone Wars through the end of the war to the midst of the Galactic Empire, but the true strength of the book isn’t in the myriad of references or hints at things yet to come; its strength is the leads and the choices they make, the characters themselves bearing the weight of the story.
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(Programming note: this piece is the first of three about Star Wars Propaganda. On Friday and next Monday, I’ll be posting a two-part interview with the author, Pablo Hidalgo.)
Like a lot of people, I’ve been looking forward to the Star Wars Propaganda book ever since it was announced. WWII-esque propaganda posters for the Empire and Rebellion have been a part of Star Wars merchandise (and fan creation) for a long time, because they just fit into the old-timey milieu of Star Wars. There’s a certain sense of familiarity to the Star Wars setting – that despite the space opera dressing, the galaxy far far away actually feels rather like ours. Star Wars echoes our history, myth, and fairy tales. And while fairy tales and myth may seem different from familiar history, it’s the myth-making of propaganda that makes the World Wars (or the nostalgic ad campaigns of the 1950s) seem like cultural touchstones as familiar to us as the stories we grew up with.
Star Wars Propaganda is written by Pablo Hidalgo, and is illustrated through the efforts of artists gathered by Becker & Mayer, and is published by Harper Design. But after the publishing pages, everything about the book treats it as if it’s an art history treatise written inside the Star Wars galaxy. See, the central conceit of the book is that it’s written in-universe and all the propaganda posters seen within it are actual pieces composed by actual in-universe artists (even the captions for the pictures refer only to these fictitious propagandists and/or sponsors). The book’s notional author, Janyor of Bith, is a propagandist whose career saw him through an era of patriotic Republic and Imperial paintings to protest paintings on behalf of the Rebel Alliance and the Resistance (it’s worth pointing out that Janyor was mentioned as an artistic inspiration for Star Wars Rebels’ artist-provocateur Sabine Wren in the episode “Idiot’s Array”). The in-universe storytelling is my favorite conceit of this book, because it allows Star Wars Propaganda to weave together the body text and art into a work of storytelling in its own right: telling the story of propaganda, galactic politics, and even of Janyor’s own personal journey in a way that’s more fun and compelling than out of universe narration might have been.
The book begins with an introduction by Janyor, where he states that propaganda is a true form of art, and that art and war are tied together in the same way that politics are tied with war. He’s discussing a fictitious universe, but the observations he makes ring true to life. The book’s about Star Wars propaganda, and the history is the history of that galaxy – but it echoes our own history and myth. The artwork illustrates that story in a literal sense, but it tells its own story through the evolving art styles and subject matter. Someone could get the whole story of the book focusing on the art alone or the text alone, should any such reader be inclined. The art and text help make the setting feel more genuine and lived in; it’s a verisimilitude that the films and television shows have which helps the world the characters inhabit feel more real.
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The chatter around Ahsoka has been very interesting, and expectations are high for a novel about a popular character who exited two TV series with fans clamoring for more. We’ve seen folks wonder if the novel will bridge the whole 15 years between The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels, or whether the novel will address issues like Ahsoka’s romantic inclinations or position on the Force’s duality (or lack thereof). Folks have wondered whether the novel would revive yet-to-be-made episode arcs from the cancelled TCW. We’ve even seen people wondering if Ahsoka will have something for readers uninterested in Ahsoka as a character. These are interesting questions and interesting expectations, but they’re to be expected when the star of the novel is no less a figure than the apprentice of Anakin Skywalker and a survivor of a galaxy-shattering conflict. Folks might come to expect a story on as large a canvas as The Clone Wars, with stakes just as high. That’s what the character Ahsoka deserves, right?
Ahsoka certainly deserves a story worthy of her, but it’s not just for her character’s stature in the universe. It’s what she means and represents to people. That’s what turned us around on a character we initially thought was annoying in TCW: we saw how much people responded to her, how she brought fans into the fandom, and how she grew as a character while taking her fans on the journey with her. A character whose return to Star Wars animation spawned a joyous hashtag and a Star Wars Celebration event deserves a story worthy of her, and that’s what she got. It’s not a story where she’s just a small piece of a larger conflict, but at the same time: it is. The scope of the story is close, intimate – the events might seem small scale, but they’re not. See, Ahsoka deserved and got a story all about her journey: her journey after the Clone Wars, but before the Galactic Civil War. It’s a small slice out of her life, and the events covered are a small slice of the galaxy. But they’re events deeply significant to her, and it turns out that she’s deeply significant to what happens in the galaxy. As is right and proper.
Ahsoka doesn’t attempt to tell the full sweep of time between ROTS and Rebels. EK Johnston keeps the focus tight on Ahsoka and the players in her immediate story. But Ahsoka’s been through a lot, has seen a lot, and the galaxy is still going through a lot. We see how the end of the Jedi and the rise of the Republic affects her, but we also see the perspective of a Jedi veteran of the Clone Wars – a veteran at too young an age – and how the changes the war wrought on the galaxy differ from what once was. Ahsoka goes through some changes too, and while it seems the stakes are small-scale – what she does is anything but small. By the time we see her in Star Wars Rebels, she’s the Fulcrum of a rebel movement and her small acts of kindness in these early days ripple into large waves by the time of the original trilogy.
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We’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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