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Timothy Zahn has returned to Thrawn

Nearly 30 years after Heir to the Empire, the Star Wars author is reimagining the EU villain again

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Star Wars has its share of iconic villains like Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine, but there’s one who has never appeared in the movies, yet has endured for decades on their level: Grand Admiral Thrawn. Since his first appearance in Timothy Zahn’s 1991 novel Heir to the Empire, Thrawn has become one of the franchise’s best-known characters, and recently made the leap back into canon status by appearing in Star Wars Rebels and a handful of new companion novels.

This month, Zahn returns to the galaxy far, far away to examine Thrawn’s earliest origins with the start to a new trilogy, Thrawn Ascendancy: Chaos Rising. Set decades before the character’s first canon appearance in Star Wars Rebels, it follows Thrawn as his home world faces a new, unexpected threat, and as he rises through the ranks to become a powerful tactician and military commander. It’s a reminder exactly why the Chiss military officer is a fan favorite.

Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy: Chaos Rising by Timothy Zahn Image: Penguin Randomhouse

By the late 1980s, Star Wars was officially dead. Return of the Jedi, the last major installment of George Lucas’ space opera franchise, had hit theaters in 1983, and while he had floated ideas of another trilogy and completing a theoretical nine-episode saga, Lucasfilm began to quietly wind down its licensing operations. Outside of a couple of TV projects, comics, and early tie-in novels, for all intents and purposes, Lucas and his company were ready to move on.

Hope of a revival remained. After a chance meeting with a publisher in 1987, Lucy Wilson, the financial director of Lucasfilm’s licensing department, realized that there might be interest in a new line of novels set within Star Wars vast world, and began to reach out to publishers to gauge interest. Lou Aronica, the publisher of Bantam Spectra, had a pitch: a set of stories detailing major in-canon events that would continue the legacy of the franchise without disrupting the movie timeline. With a new license in hand, he and his senior editor, Betsy Mitchell, set out to find the right author to tell such a story. They found Timothy Zahn.

Zahn was a lifelong science fiction reader. As a kid, his parents introduced him to the pulp hero Tom Swift Jr., and in his frequent visits to the library, he discovered the genre’s major authors, like Poul Anderson (Tau Zero), Larry Niven (Ringworld), Theodore Sturgeon (More Than Human), and Roger Zelazny (Lord of Light).

“Science fiction has been part of my life for pretty much as long as I can remember,” Zahn told Polygon. “So when I decided to write, that was naturally what I wanted to do.” Zahn studied physics in college, even pursuing a doctorate in the subject, but along the way, he started writing as a hobby, where he fused an understanding of science fact into his love of science fiction. In 1979, he sold his first short stories to magazines like Analog Science Fiction and Fact. “When my advisor died and my doctorate thesis kind of got suspended, I decided to go into writing full time,” Zahn said. “It seems to be working so far.”

Over the course of the 1980s, Zahn migrated from short fiction to novels, publishing a number of military science fiction stories with titles like The Blackcollar, Cobra, and The Backlash Mission. He began winning awards: His 1982 story “Pawn’s Gambit” earned him a Hugo nomination (and Analog’s reader award for best short story), and his 1983 novella Cascade Point won a Hugo Award.

Mitchell was familiar with Zahn’s work, having worked at Analog as its managing editor prior to joining Bantam Spectra. Lucasfilm liked Zahn’s prior work, and on Mitchell’s suggestion, signed him to a trilogy.

Heir to the Empire cover Image: Del Rey

“It went from very cool to aaah!” Zahn explained. “The cool part was a chance to do a Star Wars book. I never would have dreamed such things were possible, let alone that I would be offered it. The panic was, ‘I now have to capture the characters, the tone and feel of Star Wars.’”

He had a couple of requirements: His trilogy had to take place after Return of the Jedi, and he couldn’t bring back characters like Vader or Palpatine. He’d have to come up with a new villain for Luke, Leia, and Han to go up against. “I didn’t want a Vader-type or Emperor-type,” Zahn said. Fans already knew that the franchise’s heroes could handle them. “Once you eliminate them, what’s left?”

To Zahn, Vader and the Emperor both ruled through fear, intimidation, and manipulation. He wondered: What would happen if the leader was someone who led by loyalty? Who would the troops be loyal to? Enter Thrawn.

Heir to the Empire had the weight of a true Star Wars sequel: Han, Leia, and Luke now faced the problem of rebuilding a broken galaxy by establishing the New Republic, while taking on the remnants of the Empire and its soldiers. Initially, they faced a factious enemy, but five years later, one Imperial officer reforms the fleet with his innovative tactics and battlefield successes. Grand Admiral Thrawn is an effective commander who uses art to understand an enemy’s thinking. In the book, he strikes back against the New Republic and rattles its heroes. Thrawn might be as ruthless as Vader, but unlike the Sith Lord, he’s prepared to let his adversaries undermine themselves. In one illustrative example, he brought the remaining Imperial fleet to the galactic capital of Coruscant and laid siege to the planet by appearing to release hundreds of cloaked asteroids — threatening the planet and the defending warships. To further confuse the planet’s defense force, he only released a handful, forcing the Republic’s forces to waste time chasing ghosts. Meanwhile, Thrawn made gains elsewhere.

“He gave Luke, Leia, and Han a run for their money,” Zahn said. “He’s not going to be easy to defeat — you couldn’t just face off with a lightsaber with him. He was outthinking them. And that was something people hadn’t seen before. If you’re up against somebody like Thrawn, and he’s four steps ahead of you, your heroes have to bring their A-game to the field. When you have smart villains and smart heroes, you have a more exciting, interesting story.”

The novel was an immediate, unexpected hit for Zahn and Lucasfilm, hitting The New York Times’ bestseller list and quickly selling out its initial print run. “Nobody really knew what was going to happen, or if the Star Wars fans were even out there anymore,” Zahn recalled. With confirmation that the franchise’s fans were alive and well, a new empire was born. After Zahn published the next two installments of his trilogy, Lucasfilm and its publishing partners would go on to release hundreds of new books that continued the story of the franchise’s beloved characters and newcomers.

Thrawn is a character that Zahn was well-suited to create, but Zahn was an unlikely author to kick off the Star Wars revival. Throughout the history of science fiction, its authors, editors, and fans have paid particular attention to the physical sciences, where characters run into the hard-and-fast natural laws set down by the universe. With elements like lightsabers, hyperspace, and the Force, Star Wars isn’t generally concerned with all that. But despite those elements, Thrawn’s early saga was set in a somewhat realistic-feeling world, and Zahn’s sense of realism perfectly captured the feel of the original films. “It’s something in me that likes that logic, likes that puzzle, and likes working through the consequences,” Zahn explained.

That sensibility plays out in his other works as well. Following his first stint with Star Wars, he went on to write The Conqueror’s Trilogy, about a first-contact situation in which a human task force is abruptly attacked by an alien civilization shortly after sending out a greeting. His 1999 novel The Icarus Hunt followed a starship crew transporting a mysterious cargo across contested space, keeping the reader guessing until a killer reveal at the end.

Thrawn, a person with blue skin, sits on a throne with steepled fingers in Thrawn Treason Image: Del Rey

Zahn’s approach to storytelling is to be honest with his readers and solidly ground his stories in realism. “The goal is [for] the reader to say ‘of course!’ when you have the big reveal, not ‘oh, come on.’ Whenever there’s any kind of puzzle story, you have to play fair, and this type of science fiction story isn’t all that different from mysteries. You can hide the clues, but when they go back the second time, they have to see what they missed.”

That’s the core essence of Thrawn, and why he’s remained such a popular character. Thrawn is a suitable alternative to the likes of Darth Vader and Palpatine because he’s a character that is both fantastical and grounded: He plays by the rules that George Lucas set up. When Thrawn faces the prospect of Jedi, he seeks out lizards known as ysalamiri, which can negate the Force and render a Jedi’s powers useless. He seeks out advanced technologies left behind by the Empire — including clone cylinders — to bolster his ranks and give him an edge in combat, and utilizes new and unexpected tactics that stymy Republic forces. He is Sun Tzu and Clausewitz wrought in Star Wars form, a brilliant villain that the Star Wars community had never seen before.

Zahn disputes that he is personally responsible for resurrecting Star Wars. “I was the guy who got to stick the fork into the pie crust to show how much steam was underneath,” said Zahn. “I was there at the right place at the right time.” Moreover, while there had been other Star Wars adventures in the past, he was the first to utilize all of the franchise’s main characters, and introduced new ones that really appealed to fans — not only Thrawn, but major side characters like Mara Jade and Talon Karrde.

But Thrawn was the one so beloved by fans, so colossal in the grand scheme of the Star Wars universe, that he survived the retirement of the Expanded Universe. After Disney purchased Lucasfilm for more than $4 billion in 2012, it had to clear the deck for J.J. Abrams and his forthcoming trilogy. Zahn’s novels and the others that followed it were no longer considered Star Wars canon, and were branded “Legends.” They’d still be published, but wouldn’t figure into the new, ongoing storyline. Zahn was OK with that.

“I had no hopes, no expectations” that his characters would somehow make their way back into the official storyline, said Zahn. He and his fellow writers always knew that their stories were expendable if George Lucas decided to overwrite them. “We were allowed to play in George Lucas’ driveway. If and when George backs his truck out and runs over our stuff, we have no cause to complain. A lot of my stuff was close enough to the edge of the driveway that it only got singed a bit.”

Thrawn might have been decanonized, but Lucasfilm and its creatives recognized the character’s appeal to fans. “They had been thinking for quite a while of bringing Thrawn on,” Zahn said, “and they just had to find the right time in the universe for it to make sense.”

Thrawn in Star Wars: Rebels standing in front of an Imperial officer and stormtrooper Image: Lucasfilm Ltd.

That time came in 2016, when Lucasfilm announced that Thrawn would return to the franchise as part of the animated series Star Wars Rebels. The show essentially ported the character from his Legends roots: Thrawn remained a brilliant strategist who was a critical figure in the fight against the growing Rebellion, using new technologies (such as the TIE Defender) and art to understand his enemies and triumph over them. Zahn explained that series creator Dave Filoni and many of the crew who worked on Rebels were fans of the Expanded Universe stories, and had been working to bring in Thrawn for a long time. Thrawn’s status as a fan favorite helped drive that along. When told that the series would bring his famous creation in, Zahn said that his response was simple: “The internet is going to melt.”

Along with Thrawn’s appearance in Rebels, Zahn would pen a new novel, Thrawn, that chronicled the character’s early days as an Imperial officer. Zahn didn’t have to change anything with the character, telling me in 2017 that “he’s like an old friend who I understand completely.” While Heir to the Empire was no longer canon, a reader could easily read Thrawn as a precursor to that classic novel. Thrawn went on to become a major presence in Rebels, and Zahn continued to explore his origins in Thrawn: Alliances and Thrawn: Treason.

But those novels only told part of the story. In Thrawn, we’re introduced to the Grand Admiral when he comes into contact with the Empire’s forces way out on the frontier, and over the course of the three books, it becomes clear that Thrawn and the civilization that he comes from have some pressing concerns of their own — other threats out in the unknown depths of the galaxy. With his new book, Thrawn Ascendancy: Chaos Rising, Zahn pulls back the curtain on a completely new part of the world, one that’s largely been unaffected by the rise and fall of the Galactic Republic.

Zahn noted that this is the first time that he’s been contracted to write a full trilogy since those first books in 1991. “In the case of the Imperial Trilogy (Thrawn, Thrawn: Alliance, and Thrawn: Treason), they were done one at a time, so I could use previous characters, but couldn’t set up [longer] character arcs, not knowing if there’s a payoff. Now that I have been given three at once, I can have major character arcs, I can introduce characters, and they’re not going to pop out of existence.”

As to the future of his character, Zahn noted that his second novel has been completed, with the third installment awaiting approval from Lucasfilm. While he knows where he’s taking the character, he said that Lucasfilm hasn’t told him if Thrawn will pop up somewhere else. Either way, Zahn recommends not trusting the rumors that pop up on the internet. “Mara Jade was definitely going to be in The Force Awakens. She was definitely going to be in The Last Jedi, and was probably going to be in The Rise of Skywalker,” Zahn joked. “Put no stock in rumors. Until you see it on, don’t believe it.”

The new novel holds a lot of potential for readers. Longtime fans can delve into the depths of Thrawn’s life, getting to better understand how he became the iconic character that they first met in 1991. But the trilogy is also set far away from the main action of the Skywalker saga, in a part of the universe that’s gone unexplored.

“It’s a huge universe in time and space,” said Zahn. “There are so many opportunities. This is one of the things that makes it so easy to write a Star Wars book or at least set one up: There are all sorts of places to go, and they could make movies, books, and comics for the next thousands of years and not finish what George set up.”

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