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Saturday, December 12, 2015

Force in Focus: Aftermath

Even moreso than Shattered Empire, Chuck Wendig's Aftermath suffers under the weight of expectations. The novel counterpart to Shattered Empire's comic book series (in that it is the first novel, rather than comic book, of the new canon set after Return of the Jedi), it not only being billed as an important stepping stone towards the world of The Force Awakens, but the circumstances of its release automatically put it into comparison to Timothy Zahn's novel, Heir to the Empire. But not only was Heir the first post-Jedi novel of the old Expanded Universe (it certainly wasn't the first original fiction Star Wars novel, but it did kick off the modern resurgence in Star Wars that hasn't abated since and is generally considered to have begun what fans think of when they think "Expanded Universe), it also remains, to this day, the most acclaimed of Star Wars novels, routinely considered both the best of the lot and most fans' favorite.

Aftermath, then, is cursed twice over; before even a word was written, it was setup to both tell a new version of events post-Jedi and detail those events in a way comparable to everyone's favorite Star Wars book. Of course, it fails to live up to Heir, but that's not entirely its fault: nothing in this day and age could, and to Wendig's credit, he doesn't try to live up to it; the story he tells is an entirely different beast than Heir, at times both more and less concerned with the big picture of the galaxy than Heir was. And as much as this book invites circumstantial comparisons, it's also been released under vastly different circumstances: it's not ending a drought of new Star Wars stories, and it exists as but one narrative brick (albeit a large one) in a house that is being very carefully constructed, whereas Heir was written and released with relatively little oversight by LucasFilm, while most of the people reading Aftermath (especially the ones being overly-critical of it) are much older, with many more Star Wars stories under their belt, than when they first encountered Heir.

Nevertheless, the key to enjoying Aftermath is in managing expectations. To wit, knowing three things going in will do a lot to temper how the story is received :

1. It's written in present tense.
2. Luke and Leia don't appear in the book, Han & Chewie make only one brief appearance tangential to the main action, and the only pre-existing characters who are significant to the plot are Wedge and Admiral Ackbar, along with Mon Mothma, who appears in a handful of world-building interludes.
3. Like Shattered Empire, this doesn't provide a straight-forward chronological history of important events from the end of Jedi to the beginning of The Force Awakens.

The first one is no big deal; while not common, this is hardly the first book to use present tense (I wouldn't have even noticed it if I hadn't seen people griping about it online). The second one is disappointing, but understandable. Unlike Heir, which had no feature films looming on the horizon when it was published, the Big Three are all slated to appear in Force Awakens, and LucasFilm likely wanted their circumstances to be a surprise to audiences, meaning they are off the table for this book. With that in mind, Wendig was probably smart to go almost entirely with new characters rather than focusing on the non-Big Three. It gives him more narrative freedom, and prevents existing characters from coming across like they're second fiddles, who only got used because "the big kids" were unavailable.

The third one is, again, disappointing but understandable. As much I'd like to read a dry, history book-esque summation of the history of the Star Wars galaxy (and have, at least as it existed in the old EU), that doesn't make for a good story, and that's what a novel needs. As with the Big Three being off limits, Wendig was also likely limited in just how many details of the post-Jedi world he could reveal. He does, through, various interludes interspersed amongst the main narrative, give readers glimpses of the emerging post-Jedi political reality. The first such interlude deals with the aftermath of the celebration on Coruscant seen at the end of the Jedi special edition, thus addressing a continuity point that always bugged me (I always thought it was ludicrous that people living on the Imperial capital would either want to celebrate, or not suffer repercussions for celebrating; Aftermath addresses those concerns).

Other interludes reveal tidbits of the formation of a new goverment, the New Republic (a name for the Rebellion's legitimate government coined by Zahn in Heir but carried over into the new canon here), with a newly reformed Senate and Mon Mothma as the first chancellor (again, as in Heir). It's also revealed that the New Republic is based on Chandrila (Mon Mothma's homeworld), rather than on Coruscant (suggesting that, at the time of the New Republic's founding, the Imperial capital is still being held by Imperial forces), and that Mon Mothma carried over Palpatine's emergency powers from the Clone Wars into the new Chancellorship, only to use them to quickly shrink the military (a bit of political wrangling that makes the world feel richer while recalling elements of the Prequels).

But again, this all happens on the margins of the main narrative, which is chiefly centered on one planet, where a summit of high-ranking Imperial officers, Moffs and dignitaries are meeting to decide the course of the post-Palpatine empire and features a range of new characters, including a Rebel pilot trying to reconnect with her estranged son, a former Imperial loyalty officer, and a Rebellion-sympathizing bounty hunter. For the typically black-and-white Star Wars universe, Wendig effectively paints his characters in shades of gray, with all the protagonists grappling with unsavory actions or mistakes in the past despite their good intentions, and the chief antagonist, Admiral Rae Sloane, that rare Imperial who isn't a raving lunatic and genuinely seems to believe in the purpose of the Empire.

Ultimately, Aftermath manages to tell both a good story, and be a good Star Wars story. It's certainly  not the new canon's Heir to the Empire, but it's also not trying to be, and judging it by those standards simply for dint of its publication status is unfair. Reading it with fresh eyes, independent of those expectations, results in a much better experience.

6 comments:

  1. Chandrila? You know, I resisted temptation last week upon your constant misspelling of "Sharra" to try being punny on if the galaxy far far away where stuff took place a long time ago is in fact the Shi'ar galaxy of current day, but now I can't help any more: has Chandrila been in SW since the beginning or is someone maybe trying get one over from Claremont and his central planet of Shi'ar?

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    1. I don't know exactly when "Chandrila" was coined, but I assume it was probably in the initial Star Wars Sourcebook, which is where a lot of the "official" names and alien species and whatnot came from back in the day. That was probably first published in the mid 80s, so definitely after Claremont's initial Shi'ar stuff.

      At the risk of generalizing, most gamers are pretty big nerds, so it's entirely possible whomever came up with "Chandrila" specifically had Claremont's planet in mind. Then again, the Shi'ar world is Chandrilar, so it could just be another coincidence (like Claremont naming his totally-unrelated-to-the-first-one alien character Warlock).

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    2. According to Wookieepedia, Chandrila was first mentioned in the 1994 novel, THE TRUCE AT BAKURA by Kathy Tyers. (Which, funnily, was the first chronological story after Endor -- it begins immediately in the aftermath of the battle -- in the old Expanded Universe.)

      I like the idea, which I never really thought about before, of the New Republic capital being a world other than Coruscant. It stands to reason that the Empire would control that planet longer than any other, after all. I'm also happy to hear that the celebration scene there is addressed, as I always found it odd, too.

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    3. Huh. I specifically looked on Wookieepedia for the first mention of Chandrila, and didn't find that. Guess that's what I get for checking on my iPad, maybe? Anywho, thanks.

      Like you, I never gave it much thought before, but I do like the idea of the New Republic being headquartered somewhere other than Coruscant. Like, even in the old EU, it took them 5 years to liberate it, and given how entrenched the Empire was, it's easy to make a case for the new government not adopting it as their capital.

      It's funny you mention TRUCE; one of the comments I had about AFTERMATH that I couldn't work into the post naturally was that if everyone was comparing it to TRUCE instead of HEIR, it would be much better received.

      I'm also happy to hear that the celebration scene there is addressed, as I always found it odd, too.

      SPOILERS (if you care)
      Basically, the first interlude is set on Coruscant, and seems to be set amongst the mob seen tearing down the statute at the end of JEDI. That mob is then quickly cut down by Imperial forces, presumably moments after the camera leaves them in JEDI, and order is restored.

      Which makes sense. I could see a segment of the population rising up at the news, only to be silenced quickly as the remnants of Imperial authority go into "he's not dead, that's Rebel propaganda!" mode.

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    4. That Coruscant scene sounds a little depressing but also kind of funny, and pretty much what I would expect from the Empire. Thanks!

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  2. Teebore: (like Claremont naming his totally-unrelated-to-the-first-one alien character Warlock)

    The one that has Magus for father, and who at one point refer to each other as THE Warlock and THE Magus fighting as it has always been, the Magus being the older one, but interchangeable? That sort of coincidence, you say? ;)

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