Gray Matters I: LOST STARS and the Seductive Evil of the Galactic Empire

51gF3dYpeTL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_[1]As it happens, we were long planning a series of pieces called “Gray Matters” on how the various sides in Star Wars are and ought to be portrayed in the new canon. Our first piece was either going to be about the Empire or the Rebellion, where we would discuss the comparative pitfalls of black and white morality vs moral grays and try to come up with a solution that was morally nuanced but still fit the morality tale that is the Star Wars saga. And lo – here came a novel called Lost Stars by Claudia Gray, featuring of all things a narrative about just how decent people serve as Imperial Loyalists. The coincidence (and the now doubly punny title) was impossible to ignore, so here we are!

We’ll try to avoid spoiling the book, especially as we hope this article convinces some folks to read Lost Stars! Don’t let the YA label dissuade you: YA novels are emphatically not less mature than adult novels (at least not simply because they’re YA!). This is the first Star Wars YA book, as the books EU fans typically call “YA” are middle grade books, which also should not be judged on their age rating because the six canon middle grade books out as of last week are amazing — particularly Servants of the Empire — and this week’s brilliant ANH adaptation brings that to seven!)

Lost Stars is the closest we’ve ever really gotten to an Imperial POV novel – the title characters basically start up as Imperial subjects and join the Imperial service. One of them – Thane Kyrell – drifts away from the Empire while the other – Ciena Ree – stays loyal. Gray crafted a unique and interesting societal background for them on their Rim world of Jelucan which explains their different world views and consequently divergent takes on Imperial policy. These differences are not unique to Thane and Ciena – a good amount of the cast is in the service of the Emperor, and they are all very different people with different motivations and ethical codes. This is what makes the novel a perfect case study: more than just portraying Imperial Loyalists with authenticity or even sympathy, Gray shows the wide variety of people who serve the Empire and how their service to the Empire changes them in turn.

The thing about the Galactic Empire is that it is not a monolith. It is complex and nuanced. It is, obviously, ruled by evil Sith Lords. It is supported by fascists in COMPNOR and ISB. It is driven by raw material exploitation and upheld by stormtroopers and a military that can range from the ruthless but honorable to the downright brutal. So at the first instance, let’s not pretend the Empire is daisies and roses (those of you familiar with our “Imperial Colbert” routine may be surprised by this turn in the discussion, but we don’t playact in our ETE articles). Beyond that though – the Empire is a galactic government, and one that is accepted by the majority of the galactic populace. This is either through an ignorance of its evils, an unwillingness to do anything about it, or acceptance of it. Imperials of the Core Worlds live cushy, sheltered lives – the cries of the Outer Rim go unheard. As seen in Edge of the Galaxy, Core World Imperials may well assume that the brutalities going on in the Rim are just part of the barbarity of the Rim – conducted by lawless Rimward officers to boot!

As we learn in Lost Stars, however, the distinction is not between active agent of Imperial oppression and passive beneficiary. The lines blur and cross. This makes the Empire interesting. George Lucas always said that the Empire was a seductive form of evil: it would not be so threatening if it were the repository of all the bad things, because it’s evil that persuades people to serve it that is the most threatening.

A Brief Word on Imperial Diversity

The gender-neutral, racially-diverse, and sexually tolerant Galactic Empire of the new Star Wars canon has struck some fans as odd, because a villainous government should not have made strides that are sometimes difficult to see in real life. Further, some folks also allege that the Empire should in fact represent the worst societal policies and characteristic to give the heroes something to fight against. We’ve already discussed why simply reproducing real-life sexism without engaging it or inserting present ideological disagreements into Star Wars hurts the narrative, but today we want to talk about the notion that a Galactic Empire that doesn’t discriminate on the basis of human sex, sexual orientation, or race is somehow no longer evil.

Rae Sloane — best character, or best ever?
An Empire that simply checks off all the boxes of “bad” isn’t scary, it’s cartoonish and implausible. Discrimination is an invidious and awful, and governments which purposefully enshrine intolerance in law are usually bad governments (especially when they exploit societal differences to their own ends). As a storytelling device, it’s only effective when the story really showcases why discrimination is bad and how to combat it. Otherwise, it is just hanging there and alienates the part of the audience that is not represented (“stormtroopers can’t be black!” or “women can’t be Imperial admirals!”). Does the absence of that kind of discrimination hurt the all-pervading evil that the Empire is supposed to represent? We don’t think so – if anything, it enhances it by showing that the Empire’s evil is so seductive that it draws all sorts of people to it.

Here’s the thing. Just because the Galactic Empire doesn’t discriminate on the basis of (human) race or gender doesn’t mean it isn’t evil. Just because the Galactic Empire isn’t homophobic doesn’t mean that isn’t villainous. Merely reaching the basic standards of civil conduct should be a minimum for any just government, not the end of the examination. The Galactic Empire does a lot of things – it destroys planets, it enslaves populations, and it crushes all dissent. Not everyone in the Empire is evil and some good people can serve the Emperor for good reasons, but the Empire is not good simply because it doesn’t irrationally discriminate. Watch Rebels, read the comics or the books – you’ll see plenty of Imperial evil. There’s no need to inject real life discrimination that alienates fans of diverse backgrounds to accomplish that goal.

Just look at the people of various racial, gender identity, or  gender orientation that are so happy lately because the landscape of Star Wars is better reflecting who and what they are. Don’t take that from them – from us. We’re all fans, we can share.

High Society and Sophistication: Beneficiary and Agent of Imperialism

Both Ciena and Thane come from the same Rim world, but of disparate backgrounds. Ciena comes from the hard-scrabbling original colonists of the planet, exiled from their original world for their support of a deposed monarch. While her ilk ekes out a rural existence, Thane’s family is part of a newer wave of colonists with a more bourgeois aspect. The farmers are honorable and close-knit, the second-wavers are wealthy and fancy. To the Empire and to the galaxy at large: they’re all just Rimward bumpkins. Thane and Ciena take to the stars for differing personal reasons and for a shared love of flying, and they both end up at the Royal Academy of Coruscant.

Ciena, who ends up being a staunch Imperial Loyalist, thrives on Coruscant. She enjoys being at the center of galactic life and flourishes amongst all the energy of the capital. She struggles a bit in a course called Core Worlds Classical Culture until she successfully imbibes enough of its values that during a ball at the Imperial Palace, she reassesses her ancestral aversion to dancing (considered frivolous, and perhaps a bit risqué) in light of Core Culture and finds that aversion downright provincial. (Aside – yes, there’s a ball at the Imperial Palace and a course called Core Worlds Classical Culture at the Royal Academy of Coruscant… I don’t know if Claudia Gray somehow plucked my favorite things out of my brain when she wrote this, but wow! Thanks!)

Because I can't go a day without mentioning Ars Dangor
Can’t go a day without mentioning Ars Dangor!

Aside from fancy Imperial soirées being the best thing ever, this stuff is important because it establishes the nature of the dominant group in the Empire. These are the people who run the Empire, and these are the values that are in turn being inculcated on those who would serve the Emperor at the highest levels. It establishes three things: firstly, your original ties are provincial and ought to be discarded; secondly, your new highly cultured Imperial (in the sense of cosmopolitan or galactic) values mark you as superior; thirdly, others who do not belong are either defective or unworthy. There’s a distance built between the Imperialized élite and the rest of the galaxy: one that builds on the Core-Rim divide to tie the most economically and culturally powerful worlds to the Imperial system and justify the subjugation of the Rimward worlds which provide the rawmats. Some of them probably even feel like their superiority entitles them to rule, and only they could provide good government to the galaxy (an Ars Dangor quote comes to mind: “Who better than the most educated, well-trained, highly civilized elite to lead lesser beings who know nothing about maintaining culture and organization?”). This is perhaps offensive to those who believe in democracy, but is it evil? Perhaps it is! Perhaps it is not. There may be lines where it crosses from the acceptable to the intolerable, depending on what that kind of attitude enables.

This structure would not have been unfamiliar to the ancient Persians or the Romans, or – in a more blatantly racist and exploitative sense – colonial European governments. It is not inherently evil, as the Persians and Romans show, but it establishes that hierarchy that binds the privileged few together and excludes the others (look up the concept of “paideia” and its role in providing civic ruling classes a shared unifying culture, particularly in Peter Brown’s “Power and Persuasion” for an excellent analogue to “Core World Classical Culture” in classical antiquity). Though not evil in itself, this cultivation of a cosmopolitan ruling class identity allows evil to perpetuate when evil is present by shielding those who are in the privileged position from dealing with the ramifications of their actions. How many of these Imperial officers – whether actually privileged Core Worlders or trained as such – actually see the pain and suffering inflicted on the rest of the galaxy? And if they do see it, will they care, after the sort of training they’ve had? There is a very real sense that the Core Worlds have a greater sense of gallantry and social responsibility though: that these are ladies and gentlemen in addition to being officers. They’re supposed to be the good Imperials — but then isn’t it possible that the very notion they possess that they’re the nice ones means it’s likely they’ll ignore the bad things the Empire does, nestled as they are in their cultivated self-assurances? Doesn’t this Coruscantization (also a way to explain why Imperials all sound like they’re from Coruscant, even if they might not be: it was an idea common in Legends and I’m glad Gray did something similar) create a “we know best” idea that might not actually be in the best interests of the other worlds in the galaxy?

The fancy outfits mean they deserve to rule over you... right??
The fancy outfits mean they deserve to rule over you… right??

What about those who merely benefit from Imperial rule, rather than those who actively fight to support it? Are they evil? They might be – depending on how much they know about Imperial activities and atrocities. Most of them simply live in comfortable ignorance, perhaps willful, or perhaps imagining that Imperial atrocities happen out there, on the Rim, and would never be tolerated in civilized space as a character in Jason Fry’s Edge of the Galaxy does. Perhaps they believe that the Rebellion is envious and wants to take all their hard-earned (or hard inherited) wealth, a belief Fantasy Flight Games’s Force and Destiny ascribes to many Core Worlders and taken to the furthest extreme in Legends’ Wedge’s Gamble, where some Coruscanti fled in their expensive yachts rather than live under a Rebel-run Coruscant. When we follow up with the next “Gray Matters” piece on the Rebel Alliance/New Republic, we’ll note what the Rebel perspective on these passive beneficiaries of Imperial rule might be. Some might argue that benefitting from Imperial rule is a guilt all in itself – but regardless of which way one falls on the matter, the point is that this kind of culpability is complex and nuanced. It’s not easy to figure out, even if bystanderism or benefitting from Imperial cruelty isn’t as bad as directly causing it.

Jackboots and clean hallways: the militarists and the fascists

Of course, the Galactic Empire is more than just soigné soirées, courtly coiffures, and sartorial splendor. As much as we personally love all these things, there’s also the Empire that everybody else thinks about: the Stormtroopers and the soldiers, the loyalty officers and the spies. There’s not necessarily a hard split between the two: many of the same officers have feet in both worlds. Some are merely thugs and Rimkin barbarians, such as Tarkin – the monster who destroyed Alderaan because he was jealous of the Core. Most people seem to get why these Imperials are evil: they’re the face of the Empire, the ones we see oppressing people on screen. There’s perhaps less to say about them then, but let’s discuss the idea of the “honorable” Imperial.

We’ve heard around that some feel that Lost Stars romanticizes Imperial service (pun intended) – perhaps it does, but if only to show how it might appear to those who serve the Empire. Lost Stars shows how far the image of a law-and-order sustaining Empire can push people, and shows how far people might go in service of that goal and what delusions they might adopt in order to avoid facing the horrors they have committed. One of the greatest things the Clone Wars did for Star Wars — and Gray uses this to great effect — is give Imperials a “never again” that drives Imperials into thinking they’re doing the right thing. They think they’re saving the galaxy from the horrors unleashed by the late Old Republic, war and violence, when in reality that’s what they are bringing themselves. Just as in art, when Romanticism slid straight into Realism, the starry-eyed image of orderly and wonderful Imperial discipline slides into an examination of the true horrors of the Imperial system. This is not whitewashing, and Lost Stars makes clear that the Empire is doing awful things – it’s just that the characters don’t realize it, and when they do, won’t confront it. This is excellent and wonderful. Evil happens because people let it happen, and think that it isn’t happening. That does not make them innocent – they are culpable, without realizing it. We saw a similar take on the all-pervading corruption of Imperial evil in the third Servants of the Empire book, and we loved it there too.

So who’s this “honorable Imperial”? Can someone serve the Empire without being an evil person? Yes, probably, but it’s not an easy thing to do. Are the people who served the Empire after Alderaan good people? It’s hard to imagine that they could be, though there are some tortuous leaps of logic people can make in order to try and avoid facing the reality that the Empire destroyed an inhabited world. Our pal Bria from Tosche Station wrote a wonderful piece on how Imperials processed, handled, and reacted to the destruction of Alderaan in Lost Stars, and we couldn’t possibly have said it better ourself (her article does have spoilers). Suffice it to say though, it’s a big galaxy and it’s probably possible to say “I’m not that kind of Imperial, and I truly believe in the mission of the Empire and that it works for the good of society” – if you serve only in the Core, if you avoid serving under Sith Lords or crazy grand moffs, you might get away with being an honorable Imperial. Admiral Rae Sloane (RAE SLOANE, my favoritest favorite of the new canon) is absolutely . But it’s a smaller group than one might imagine. Simply being a “fascist lite” doesn’t make you a good person, it makes you a milquetoast villain. See Gilad Pellaeon, slaver and social Darwinist, for a Legends example of a man everyone thought of as the archetypal good Imperial and compare him to actual good Imperials like Admiral Teren Rogriss or Grand Admiral Osvald Teshik. There’s a legitimate distinction between the fascists — the New Order true believers — and the group the EU called the “Generationals,” Core World officers like Sloane, Rogriss, and Teshik who believe in gallantry and service and all that… but as the evils of the Empire go on, the fewer and fewer that should remain. Jan Dodonna was one of those folks — a decorated Republic and Imperial officer who left the service when he saw what it became, and he became a key Rebel while John Jackson Miller’s Baylo (from his short story “Orientation”) was an old school naval officer who valued order and discipline in the military but rejected the Imperial system because he believed that in the civilian world, liberty should reign. Too many Imperial characters of the “honorable” type might well run the risk of whitewashing the Empire or unintentionally celebrating military dictatorship in the narrative (a problem of the late EU), but it’s interesting and worth it to see the rare good Imperial struggling against her more brutal compatriots, such as Sloane often does). And again, let’s think about the issue of bystanderism and culpability: is it worse when you’re in the military?

He acts the aristocrat, but he comes from the ghastly Outer Rim
Oh, and let’s talk about Tarkin. Now there’s an archetypal example of a secular Imperial villain – the lead villain of the very first Star Wars film. Tarkin has a cameo in Lost Stars. Some folks wondered if Tarkin was a bit whitewashed here too, a little too charming and gentle. He absolutely was not. It’s a matter of perspective – and that’s narrative perspective, not moral perspective. We have three different looks at Tarkin in the literary Star Wars canon right now, each with a different perspective and consequently a different take. There’s Lost Stars, where Tarkin is a nice friendly uncle figure to Ciena Ree and Thane Kyrell. There’s James Luceno’s Tarkin, where Tarkin is a man who wants order out of chaos. And there’s Alexandra Bracken’s The Princess, The Scoundrel, and the Farm Boy, where Tarkin is a cruel, vicious, and petty man. Three Tarkins? No, he’s the same man in each – the difference is who’s considering him. Ciena Ree sees him as the man who inspired her to reach the stars as she always dreamed, and he has no reason to be cruel to children who just want to serve the Empire. Tarkin see himself as a great man, a man who will right the galaxy by any means necessary. Leia sees him as a ruthless monster who seeks power for its own sake, and will destroy any who get in his way. Leia’s right, by the way, but that’s not the role Tarkin plays in this story. That doesn’t mean Gray whitewashed him – it means Gray used him the way he fit in the story she was telling.

So on one hand, an audience might think Imperials are great and honorable without examining what really makes them evil. On the other, an audience may know full well why a character is evil and chafe at them being presented as anything but. Perspective is a wonderful thing – we all have the ability to take an objective look at things, but the characters don’t. The very fact that the characters are trapped within the confines of the narrative means they might not realize things we do, and that affects how things are portrayed. This is also why people who think they are good people end up doing horrible, awful things.

It’s what we always wanted

Imperial advisors know how to party
Imperial advisors know how to party

So it’s funny that this piece is both an analysis and a review of Lost Stars. Our original idea for “Gray Matters” was to present a discussion of the ways the Empire has been presented in Legends and in the new canon so far, and propose a way to portray the Empire’s evil with nuance and subtlety. We wanted a portrayal that unquestionable maintained the Empire’s status as a villain, but plausibly portrayed why so many people could serve it despite truly thinking that they were good (alongside all of the morally deficient, the amoral opportunists, and the outright evil people). Claudia Gray stole a march on us by writing the portrayal of the Empire that we always wanted but it still allowed us to write about it, we just showed all the awesome things that Gray did in her portrayal of the Empire.

We focused almost solely on the institutional aspects of the Empire here, but Lost Stars has a cast of memorable characters to show how this works on a human level. The characters tend to be likeable, interesting, relatable — and yet they’re Imperials, serving the Empire for all the reasons we discussed. Many of them seem like perfectly nice people, and they all have their hopes, dreams, and aspirations. It’s all very well done. Read Lost Stars if you haven’t.

What’s the answer at the end of the day? We said it at the beginning: the Empire is evil. For the story to work, it has to be. But it has to be an evil that is compelling, because part of the story involves guarding against the temptation of evil. Otherwise good people might serve the Empire and still think they’re doing good. How good are they really? That’s a question best left to the audience, though you might imagine that the more active a role a person plays in the Empire, the harder it becomes to say they’re innocent. The mother and father supporting a family, who seeks the end of the Rebellion because the war might hurt their family? They’re probably less culpable than the Imperial officers who allow atrocities to happen. Somebody like Rae Sloane has very high standards to live up to — you might well say such a person is not evil for preferring orderly government over the Republic’s chaotic liberty (even while disagreeing with her), but that view is not inherently evil. Failing to stop evil or participating in it is — and thankfully, Sloane has shown that she is both ruthless enough to be a villain but that she has her standards too. That’s a compelling character. Ciena Ree — this novel’s Imperial loyalist — also has a similarly compelling story. We promised not to spoil, so we won’t: but those who’ve read the novel know of her reactions to learning more about the true nature of the Empire.

We’ll continue with Gray Matters II, which will discuss the good guys. That’s another case of the new canon actually already doing what we want it to, and we’ll talk about Rebels and Aftermath portraying heroes that are actually heroic but still struggle with their darker sides. But after an entire week of pieces published by yours truly, we’ll take a bit of a breather. We’ll also toy with some other fun ideas we have – but rest assured, we’ll talk about the Rebels soon enough!

P.S. Claudia Gray if you write more books about Coruscanti social life and the Imperial Court we will buy them. Come on, you know you want to!

P.P.S. Anybody who wants to bring back the space tuxedos from Agents of the Empire or the Imperial high society gossip newsnet Coruscant Daily Newsfeed would also be my hero, thanks!

11 thoughts to “Gray Matters I: LOST STARS and the Seductive Evil of the Galactic Empire”

  1. I think Lost Stars might just be my favorite Star Wars book ever, precisely because it tackles the ideas you brought up here.

    1. I really hate declaring books favorites because it feels so arbitrary and because my favorites shift based on what I’ve been interested in on any given day… but it’s definitely a long-awaited book that I’d put in my top three of the new canon without question (I kind of hate trying to rank any more specifically than that). The fun part is that my top three consists of two middle-grade books and a YA novel!

      Not that the adult novels haven’t been great — A New Dawn was my favorite for ages — but it goes back to my thing about not judging a SW book by its age rating.

      As for favorite SW ever, I think the X-wing books will forever rule my heart and I have trouble imagining even the greatest thing in the universe changing my love for the books I grew up on.

      1. There are other books that I enjoy more, that I will go back to again and again (including the X-Wing series) – but I was just utterly impressed with this. It was so utterly well crafted and even complex… just lovely.

  2. I’m with you all the way up until the comments on dear old Gilad. How dare you sir HOW DARE YOU.

    (But thank you for articulating my thoughts re: portrayals of Tarkin.)

    1. Heh heh — sorry, I couldn’t help but put in that dig against Old Fuss and Failure any more than I couldn’t help name dropping Dangor and Sloane. But my dislike of him for his cowardly and mutinous retreats aside, I do think Pelly is a key example of a whitewashed Imperial. He’s a fascist lite — not a good guy by any stretch, and not an actual “good Imperial” like Rogriss or Teshik who were never associated with the worst of the Empire’s ideas and doings.

      And I’ll confess to you Bria, in the privacy of this completely public comment thread, that I used to be a Pelly fan like a decade ago. But I got better. 😀

      As for Tarkin — huzzah, I’m pleased to know that you thought the same!

      1. I was reading and kept waiting for the dig and then HELLO there it was. 😛

        And for Tarkin, yeah that’s exactly what I was thinking when I saw that conversation on Twitter the other day but it seemed too much work to try and condense it down to 140 characters.

      2. Heh it occurs to me that a lot of my ETE posts are basically subtweets turned into paragraphs where I saw “some people say _____ but here’s why they’re wrong.” The Tarkin thing is just the latest example of that.

      1. Excuse you my last comment was snarkily translating something into Millennial for you. And hey, I have to keep you on your toes somehow when I don’t have access to social media during the day!

  3. This was an excellent read – though, in a way, it could be said Sloane is indeed the new Pellaeon in terms of occupying the ‘Good Imperial’ box in people’s perception, while being nothing of the kind!

    Thanks also for the link to Bria’s piece over at Tosche Station.

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