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Star Wars: Aftermath's most interesting characters are its self-loathing totalitarians

What the statues fall, only people remain

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What happens after you blow up a Death Star and deal what should be a killing blow to an empire that used to exercise iron control over an entire galaxy? The fallen government has to regroup, and in doing so has to rethink nearly everything about itself.

What happens when it doesn't like what it sees?

Warning: This story contains quotes and very light spoilers for Star Wars: Aftermath

When power is taken

Star Wars: Aftermath is a novel tells the story of what happens after the events of Return of the Jedi, and the book takes a while to find itself. Star Wars is filled with sometimes hokey-sounding slang and weird alien species spread across a number of backwater planets. It's not Game of Thrones, but it's not exactly welcoming unless you're already a fan.

But once author Chuck Wendig finds his footing, he explores, pokes at and questions the Star Wars universe in a way that's refreshing for a novel.

The Empire has been broken and scattered, and a meeting of the few leaders left who control Star Destroyers, along with the one last Super Star Destroyers, is crucial. If they work together, they may be able to rebuild a bit and gain power back from the New Republic, a group they still mostly see as violent rebels. The problem is that, outside of the organized crime that the Empire has quietly supported to fill its war chest, they have few friends left.

It was an expression of the Sith philosophy from the top down, and without any Sith to run it the Empire is adrift.

There is an amusing scene where the last tatters of the Empire are discussing how to get control back, and one officer has to explain why the New Republic's support is so widespread, and its propaganda so effective. She has to, in effective, explain to everyone at the table that they are the bad guys.

"This isn't some kind of inspirational story," she says. "Some scrappy, ragtag underdog tale, some pugilistic match where we're the goodhearted gladiator who brings down the oppressive regime that put him in the arena. They get to have that narrative. We are the ones who enslaved whole worlds full of alien inhabitants. We are the ones who built something called a Death Star under the leadership of a decrepit old goblin who believed in the 'dark side' of some ancient, insane religion."

What's so interesting about this scene is watching the Imperial officers discuss what would happen were they to surrender. "They will try us as war criminals. They will jail some of us, and execute others," they tell each other. That's how the Empire operates, after all. They can't imagine a ruling power operating any other way.

The lack of naval power isn't the only problem the Empire has within itself during these scenes, the death of the Emperor and Darth Vader was also a huge blow. Palpatine was a legend. It's not like the average officer or agent of the Empire would ever meet him, and his robotic right hand, Darth Vader, was just as fearsome and mysterious. How much man existed inside that suit? Why did these two men seemingly control an entire religion that gave them magical power? How would one fight that? Why would you try?

Darth Vader points his red lightsaber at Luke Skywalker during their fight in Cloud City in The Empire Strikes Back Image: Lucasfilm/Disney

They were boogeymen, and once they were destroyed the Empire was back to being run by mere mortals, and that was a scary thought to people who were used to the comfort of being under the yoke of the Sith.

And that's ultimately what the Empire is about: Control. Making sure there was an oppressive form of peace. Breaking the back of alien species and bringing them under human control. Order and respect. The Empire was always xenophobic to the extreme, the book describes a young man in the service having his finger broken for trying to learn to speak Ithorian.

It's a movement that believed power belonged with people who could use it well, and anyone who opposed that idea would be executed or enslaved. The Empire saw doing so as a sort of calling. It was an expression of the Sith philosophy from the top down. Without any Sith to run it, the Empire is adrift.

"The dark side is honest. The dark side is direct," a character named Tashu states. He was a close adviser to Palpatine, and is the last Imperial left who still believes in that "insane, ancient religion."

Violence and fear aren't effectively long-term tools for rule

"The dark side is self-interested, yes, but it is about extending that interest outward," he continues. Palpatine didn't need power, after all. He was the only one who could use it responsibly. "He did not wrest control simply to have power for himself — he already had power, as chancellor. He wanted to take power from those who abused it. He wanted to extend control and safety to the people of all worlds. That comes with costs. He knew them and lamented them. But paid them just the same because the dark side understands that everything has a cost, and the cost must always be paid."

This is the story he tells himself, at least. It is revealed that Palpatine set up stations deep in unexplored space to help him explore the dark side. Tashu wants the last of the Empire to run to those stations to continue that exploration. It's not a retreat, it's a long-term play for more power. "Not fearful," he says, "Hopeful." This is the mark of a good Star Wars story; the ability for the Sith to almost convince you that they're right.

This sense that the old days of the Empire are over is shot through the book, and extends to one of the book's heroes, a fallen Imperial "loyalty officer" who became disillusioned after the Battle of Endor, a fight shown in Return of the Jedi.

"He should blame them," the book says. "The rebels. Even now he can hear them applauding. Firing blasters into the air. Hicks and yokels. Farm boy warriors and pipe-fitter pilots. Good for them, they deserve their celebration."

The Empire was already cracking before Luke Skywalker, a man Tashu claims has an "untouchable soul," became a Jedi. Violence and fear aren't effectively long-term tools for rule, no matter how many Sith sit on the throne. Wendig succeeds when he forces his characters to argue for their own existence and the audience can hear how hollow the arguments sound.

Aftermath sometimes suffers from the fact it has to set up so many stories that will be explored in later books and movies, but the idea of officers from a failed totalitarian regime looking at themselves and hating what they see is one of the most effective themes of the novel.

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