“The end of the Clone Wars is in sight. But beyond hope’s horizon, the darkest of stars is rising.”
Catalyst is the title of the official book “prequel” to Rogue One. It has been published in order to provide further context especially to the character of Galen Erso, to Jyn’s family, and to their relationship with director Krennic. The book is divided into three parts, spanning the time since the Clone Wars, when Galen is but one of the Republic scientists and Krennic is but one of Republic’s officers during those trying times, through the aftermath and forming of the Empire, into the first years of the Empire’s reign and the time not so long before the beginning of the Rogue One movie, when little Jyn was already running around.
The author of Catalyst is James Luceno, an old-time classic writer for the Star Wars universe. As usual, his writing contains a lot of small details which sketch out the wide Galaxy, random remarks of planets, species, events, minor characters… In terms of plot, however, I found Catalyst to be a bit lacking. But let’s try to go through this in some proper order.
WHAT CATALYST IS NOT
I expected Catalyst to be at least partly like Robert Jungk’s Brighter Than A Thousand Suns: an account of Galen Erso’s work on the Death Star project against his better judgment, complete with the moral choices and the portrayal of his dilemmas, and the explanation why he had decided to work on it. It turns out that the book does not cover this at all because it never happened. My hope to read a Star Wars universe’s version of Oppenheimer’s diary was quenched, much to my dismay. Spoilers? Spoilers it be – Galen Erso doesn’t learn what he is working on and when he does, that is the moment he decides to step out.
I believe that was quite a lame way to approach it. I don’t know whether Luceno is to blame here, or rather the Disney story group that provided him with a blueprint of what the story has to include. Was it because Galen was supposed to be the “noble person” who would never, ever fail morally so to willingly participate in the Death Star research? But he did! In the film, he did; and if the idea was to absolve him from his crimes by pretending that he only joined the project later in order to sabotage it, so he was the “good guy” through and through and all along, well, then that is a failure, in my opinion. Because even Rogue One portrays the whole crew Jyn gathers as somewhat grey characters, so why should Galen be the shining example of the super-clever and at the same time morally super-clean superhero? No. I expected a man who helps the research, yes, partly deceived by Krennic, partly lying to himself, partly not realising the scope of the terror he’s unleashing upon the Galaxy, but maybe thinking he can protect peace… There is a vague hint in Catalyst that maybe Galen suspected something, but the hint is not strong enough. Mostly, it seems like he just thought he was working on a “peaceful” project of harvesting energy from the kyber crystals. And that is not right, in my opinion.
Likewise, Catalyst is not a technical manual about how the Death Star was built. We learn that it used crystals, that it used certain other rare materials, but we don’t learn how much of what kind of materials or how exactly did everything work. Not that I wanted a technical manual. But I expected at least a glimpse of Galen’s thoughts and equations, which would be scientifically something beyond the reader’s understanding, but they could be there. Instead, it seems like the writer thought “you wouldn’t be interested in this technical nonsense anyway, so let’s skip it altogether”. Throwing a bit of some vaguely undecipherable scientific slang once in a while would have helped to sketch out the atmosphere a bit better.
WHAT CATALYST IS
There were things I had not necessarily expected and which were pleasant to see. One that comes into mind straightaway is the character of Lyra Erso, who is possibly even more important and central character than Galen Erso. Especially given how pitifully short and (in my opinion) pointless her appearance was in the film, here, we encounter her as a fully-fleshed out character who is crucial for Galen’s… ehm, spoilers… departure from the project (oh, really?).
Luceno has inhabited the galaxy with many of his own new minor characters (and also some not of his own). A kind of secondary storyline is created with the tale of Has Obitt, a Dresselian smuggler, who is instrumental to the plot, but could just as well get a book of his own. He turns out to be a likeable fellow, but to be honest, I feel like we have seen too many like him already many times before. Other notable characters include Galen’s Mirialan colleague Reeva Demesne, Lyra’s friend Nari, or Chief Gruppe of the Valltii species. Either of those could reappear in some future book, show or film (and I would not object).
Then there is Saw Gerrera. The paranoid radical rebel from Rogue One appears here in the latter part of the book as a quite sympathetic, still rebellious, but far less paranoid and radical character. I daresay Luceno has managed to sketch him out in such a way that he is recognisable as a believable version of himself from the film. What I considered the chief gain from his appearance in the book was the explanation how did he get to know the Ersos. For my taste, however, this explanation was probably still a bit too casual. Luceno has certainly managed to show that a strong bond had formed between Saw, the Ersos and Jyn in particular. However, according to the book, this bond had formed during a very brief acquaintance, which, given Saw’s suspicious personality, requires a suspension of disbelief. I expected the book to introduce Saw to the Ersos for example during the Clone Wars and keep him a distant acquaintance for a longer time. The way it is, I do not doubt the bond presented in the film – the strength of it is explained well by Luceno – but I am forced to doubt the fact that it had formed so fast.
There was also a lot more of Tarkin than expected (of course, Luceno has previous experiences with writing about him). Krennic’s relationship with the Moff – and conversely, the Moff’s attitude to him – are one of the central parts of the plot. Krennic’s desire to climb up through the ranks of the Empire is shown here explicitly and it plays well with what we saw in the movie.
And, of course, it wouldn’t be Luceno if we didn’t see many hints and connections to other parts of the canon, however obscure. For instance, I have enjoyed the part where the book gives quite a lot of space to the Geonosians (the originators of the Death Star plans briefly shown in Episode II). Also the character of Mas Amedda (Palpatine’s blue-skinned advisor) is given surprising amount of space (though still not very much objectively), providing a nice continuity with the prequels, where he still played an important part, while from Episode IV onwards, we don’t hear about him at all (obviously because his character didn’t exist when the story was written, but from in-universe perspective, his absence seems strange).
Expected, but very well-handled bonus was the explanation of the role and use of the kyber crystals. Despite what I have said about the book not going into technical details, we do hear a lot about what the crystals are and we get a pretty good idea what role do they play in the universe. Since the canon has defined their importance only recently, I consider this a welcome and important addition to the book, especially because I assume many among Rogue One‘s audience, new and veteran fans alike, felt like asking “excuse me, what crystals?” when the topic first came up.
Catalyst is a good book if you want to hear more about Galen Erso or Director Krennic. It is a superb book if you want to hear about Lyra Erso or about the relationship between Galen and Krennic, or between Krennic and Tarkin. It is the best book ever if you want to understand why Krennic is such a jerk, or if you love him being a jerk, or if you want to follow his interest in Galen Erso which borders on obsession.
Catalyst is a bad book if you are expecting a sci-fi version of Robert Oppenheimer’s biography. Catalyst is a bad book if you are expecting a sci-fi version of the history of the Manhattan Project. Catalyst is not good enough book if you are expecting too much of little Jyn and Saw Gerrera. It is enough if you are really really super-invested in reading about Jyn’s childhood, but there is really very little of it.
Catalyst utterly failed as an attempt to combine a story of an original character, Has Obitt the smuggler, with (presumably) a Disney-laid out blueprint for Galen Erso’s backstory (and many other subplots, of course). It feels at times that Luceno has tried/had to keep Galen’s story too tight to a certain layout which did not offer him much space for creativity, while at the same time trying to compensate for it by inserting some characters who could have their own story (including Lyra Erso), completely unrelated to the main plot. I mean: of course they are related, but it feels a bit arbitrary at times. You could separate the obvious “original Luceno story” from the “prescribed Galen story” and replace it with some completely different one and the plot would still work.
That all said, Catalyst wasn’t bad at all. It was an enjoyable read, mostly thanks to some of the characters (for me, it was mostly Lyra and Krennic and some of the minor characters). Just make sure you know why you want to read it and what do you want from it, so you don’t end up being disappointed.