Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Star Wars: Outbound Flight!

Our book today is the Star Wars novel Outbound Flight by Timothy Zahn, who won so many fans and kick-started the whole Star Wars fiction franchise with his so-called 'Thrawn Trilogy,' Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, and The Last Command.

Outbound Flight
brings back two of his most popular characters, seen here years earlier (in fact, as the ever-present Chronology at the beginning of every Star Wars book informs me, 27 years earlier) than the events in his famous trilogy: there's long-bearded, imperious Jedi Master Jorus C'baoth, and there's blue-skinned, glowing-eyed Imperial military genius Admiral Thrawn. C'baoth wants Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (whom we all know is secretly the Sith Lord Darth Sidious, although of course at this point in the Star Wars saga, none of the good guys - or bad guys, for that matter - know it) to approve Outbound Flight, a mission of space vessels with colonists and armed escort-ships, the goal of which sounds suspiciously Star Trek-ish: to seek out new life and new civilizations (as well as to look for somebody named Vergere, but since the book doesn't tell its readers much about her, I'm guessing she was the plot focus of some other Star Wars novel).

C'baoth isn't a pleasant character - he's brusque and overbearing, as curt and insufferable to his poor Jedi apprentice as he is to politicians, provincial governors, and his fellow Jedi Masters (Obi Wan Kenobi and his young Jedi apprentice Anakin Skywalker have substantial parts in this book and are well characterized by Zahn). Thrawn, on the other hand, is both pleasant and easy to empathize with - and Zahn seems to revel in that dialectic, a hero we don't like and a villain we do. Zahn has always been the best Star Wars writer in what is, admittedly, a limited stable, and Outbound Flight is consistently fun to read. Of course, it helps that when he's writing such characters as Kenobi or Anakin, we can't help but mentally picture the actors from the movies, in this case the underrated Ewan McGregor and the vilified Hayden Christensen:

With a sigh, Obi-Wan shut off his comlink and slipped it back into his belt.

"Still nothing?" Anakin asked.
"No," Obi-Wan said ...

Anakin muttered something under his breath. "We should have tried calling her earlier."

"We did try calling her earlier," Obi-Wan told him. "You were just too busy playing with Duefgrin's swoop to notice."

"Excuse me, Master, but I was working, not playing," Anakin said stiffly. "The Brolf we're looking for is named Jhompfi, he lives in the Covered Brush house ring, and he's supposedly using the burst thrusters on a speeder he uses to smuggled rissle sticks out to the Karfs."

Obi-Wan stared as his Padawan. "When did you get all that?"

"When you were wandering around the neighborhood looking for clues," Anakin said. It was hard to sound hurt and smug at the same time, but the boy managed to pull it off.

There's a large cast of characters in Outbound Flight, from our familiar Jedi to their Padawans (C'baoth's hapless apprentice Lorana Jinzler is particularly well realized) to nefarious agents of Chancellor Palpatine to Thrawn and his allies (who want both Outbound Flight and C'baoth destroyed) to the ordinary men and women who agree to leave behind everything they've ever known and travel outside their galaxy in order to colonize the unknown. Early on in that voyage, it becomes obvious that C'baoth is Zahn's Ahab; he starts claiming more and more authority for himself, including taking children from their parents to train them as Jedi, a decision those ordinary men and women accept with revealing resignation:

"They took the boy away three hours later," Uliar said, scowling across the table at his friends.

"What do you expect?" Tarkosa asked reasonably from across the table. "Jedi are as rare as dewback feathers. I can understand why they wouldn't want anyone with the talent to slip through their fingers."

"But before it was always just infants," Jobe Keely reminded him, his face puckered with uncertainty. "Kids who don't even know they're alive yet, much less knowing who Mom and Dad are. These kids have all been much older."

"But they've all been willing to go, haven't they?" Tarkosa countered. "Even the boy this morning. He was scared, sure, but he was also pretty excited. Face it, Jobe: most kids think it would be really cool to be a Jedi."

Naturally, as long-time Zahn readers could guess, the confrontation at the climax of Outbound Flight can only be between C'baoth and Thrawn, and as fans of the "Thrawn trilogy" will be able to guess, such a confrontation can only end one way, although even there Zahn is full of surprises, including this tantalizing little scene:

"I have indeed won," [Thrawn] told C'baoth. "I have only to give a single order -" His hand shifted slightly on his control board, his fingertips coming to rest on a covered switch edged in red. " - and you and all your people will die. Is your pride worth so much to you?"

"A Jedi does not yield to pride," C'baoth spat. "Nor does he yield to empty threats. He follows only the dictates of his own destiny."

"Then choose your destiny," [Thrawn] said. "I'm told the role of the Jedi is to serve and defend."

"You were told wrongly," C'baoth countered. "The role of the Jedi is to lead and guide, and to destroy all threats." The unburned corner of his lip twisted upward in a bitter smile.

Without warning, Thrawn's head jerked back, his whole body pressing back against his seat. His hand darted to his throat, clutching uselessly at it.

Outbound Flight is that rarest of Star Wars novels: one that entertains independently of its franchise. Slobbering completists will find enough timeline tidbits to satisfy them, but general science fiction readers will thoroughly enjoy it as well. Zahn has carved out a niche for himself writing adventures in the world of mad genius George Lucas, and that world is the better for it.

My only real frustration with the book? Everybody in it is so caught up in their own machinations (be it C'baoth's burgeoning madness, Obi-Wan Kenobi's desire to save him from it, or Thrawn's desire to use it against him) that the central idea of Outbound Flight is largely overlooked. After all, the very first thing any of us learned about Star Wars is that the entire story takes place "a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away." When somebody from that galaxy far, far away takes it into their head to build a fleet of ships and go in search of life in other galaxies, it's us they're looking for - and if not us, then what about the Colony Worlds of 'Battlestar Galactica'? Or the galaxy-spanning empire of the God Emperor of Dune? Or, for that matter, Star Trek's Federation? The urge to explore is absent from this book even though it's nominally about exploring.

But that's a minor point, one Zahn could well have addressed if it'd been part of the story he set out to tell. As it is, that story's plenty good enough.


Greg said...

I'd always wondered whether or not this book was good. I liked all Zahn's other stuff, pretty much the only Star Wars books I liked, actually (Splinter of the Mind's Eye was ok). Is it still in hardcover?

steve said...

Paperback! I found it in mass market at a thrift shop for 25 cents! And it was worth every penny!

steve said...

In fact, since that damn New Yorker article months ago on the PENNY, I now PICK UP every penny I find on the street, with the result that I could probably afford one 25 cent book EVERY DAY ...

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