Star Wars, Nero Redivivus, and The Unknown Regions

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"Thrawn: Treason" alternate cover

The distinction between the familiar, known world and the dangerous, uncharted space “out there” is one of the oldest elements appearing in every human mythology. Be it the land of giants in the far North, the edge of deep woods inhabited by elves, the islands marked “here be dragons”, or perhaps the borders of the Roman Empire beyond which the barbarians lurk. In this respect, the Star Wars mythology is no different.

What Are The Unknown Regions

“The Unknown Regions” are the territory on the edge of the Galaxy. It is something even further, more alien and less explored then the Outer Rim with its planets like Tatooine or Hoth. Tatooine may be a backwater, but you can still find people who speak Basic, get a ride to Alderaan, and even see Imperial Stormtroopers enforcing order in the streets.

The Unknown Regions and the Wild Space beyond are something else. Often, these terms are used interchangeably, even though strictly speaking, Wild Space lies beyond the Unknown Regions. While the borders of the Unknown Regions are charted to a degree, depending on the era – with planets such as the Chiss homeworld Csilla, or the outposts of the First Order located there – the Wild Space is the place where “anything goes”. It is truly wild.

The Place For Everything Bizarre

The Unknown Regions are, of course, first of all an easy dump for anything a Star Wars writer’s fancy may conjure that would not be compatible with the “normal” Galaxy. Even with the millions of alien species and strange cultures scattered throughout the Republic, there may not be space for something too bizarre. But if you want to make sure your isolated Force-using species does not clash with how the Galaxy is presented in the films, the easy lazy move is to dump it into the Unknown Space. It is a bad move, but it is the simplest one.

Thankfully, even in the old canon, such excesses were kept to a minimum. The weird examples include the “living planet” Zonama Sekot that appeared in the novel “Rogue Planet”. It could be compared to the planet Pandora from James Cameron’s Avatar, only taken further. Zonama Sekot produced its own living spaceships, grown from seeds that would connect with the pilot on a telephatic level. In the novel, young Anakin Skywalker would get his own ship – for a while.

A Yuuzhan Vong warrior, source: The New Jedi Order Sourcebook

The Place For Threats

The more interesting use of the Unknown Regions and the Wild Space beyond is to make it the starting point for enemy invasion. Just like for the Roman Empire the unknown threats always came from beyond the borders of their charted, civilised world, so it is with Star Wars. This trope has been used both in legendary and current Disney canon, proving its place in basic human mindset.

There is one obvious advantage to this idea. It allows presenting new adversaries without relying on the established order of things. Both former canon and Disney did this in response to the challenge “what to do after Episode VI”. If the Emperor is dead, what can the next challenge be? It can’t be a more powerful villain, that would diminish the value of the Rebels’ victory. It can’t be a weaker villain, such as a band of Imperial commanders, that would be boring. What is the way out? Make it a different villain, an alien villain, and place its seat in the unknown space.

The old canon fully used this idea with the Yuuzhan Vong invasion, described in the New Jedi Order series. The Yuuzhan Vong were aliens using strange biotechnology. They were perhaps a bit too alien for Star Wars – the most inexplicable being their complete lack of sensitivity, even resistance to the Force. My personal opinion is that if there was one reason why Disney abolishing the old canon was a good thing, it was for making the Yuuzhan Vong invasion non-canon. They represented an attempt to introduce an alien threat (with the questionable use of wannabe-asian-sounding name) too far.

“Nero Redivivus” in Star Wars

More interesting use of the same trope was the first major successful Star Wars novel (or trilogy) – Timothy Zahn’s “Heir to the Empire”. Imperial Grand Admiral Thrawn, originally of the Chiss race that dwell in the Unknown Regions, returns from his mysterious mission to which he has been sent by the Emperor years ago. Upon finding the Emperor dead and the Empire itself nearly destroyed, he proceeds to rebuild it, using his efficient strategic mind. The fact that he is an alien adds an air of “alienness” to his campaign.

In many ways, this resembles the trope known from antiquity – the legends and gossip surrounding some important ancient rulers, such as Alexander the Great or Nero. Even after his death, Nero was, by some, expected to return from beyond Rome’s eastern border, as “Nero Redivivus”, with a new army and retake his throne. Thrawn’s story is molded in a similar manner, but that was not the last time such a trope has been successfully used in the Star Wars universe.

The story of the First Order is in many ways a retelling of Thrawn’s tale of rebuilding the Empire, minus the alien element. The First Order’s headquarters still lie in the Unknown Regions, and that is where Starkiller Base was built, hidden from the eyes of the New Republic. It is the same trope again: the danger lurks Out There.

Chuck Wendig’s trilogy “Aftermath” narrates the escape of the Imperial remnant into the Unknown Regions and the start of the First Order there. In Episode VII, they shall return just like the mythical Nero Redivivus, with an army from the outside, and retake the Empire that has been taken from them.

Star Wars galaxy map showing major star systems, according to the Disney canon. Source: Star Wars: The Force Awakens: The Visual Dictionary

From the Old Republic into the Future

Knights of the Old Republic video game franchise includes other iterations of this trope. The threat of the Mandalorians (hailing from what was outside the Republic space at that time) stands at the beginning of the story, followed by the threat of the Sith, who also come from the outside. In KOTOR 1, the source of the Sith power – the Star Forge, a relic of the ancient Rakatan empire – is situated in the, you guessed it, Unknown Regions. Even in the new canonical atlas, the ancient Rakata – yet another mysterious alien race – are mentioned, together with Csilla, Thrawn’s homeworld, and are placed in the same region as the Starkiller Base’s origin point.

In Star Wars: The Old Republic MMORPG, the writers ended up in a bit of a schizophrenic situation. The very premise of the game is the return of the Sith Empire from the edges of the known Galaxy. However, since the conflict between the Republic and the Sith is central to the game and players can play for both sides, the creators needed to come up with another threat situated outside both the Republic and the Sith Empire for their future expansions. And they found it, as always, in the Unknown Regions.

Because of everything I have listed above, I am certain this is not the last we have seen of the Unknown Regions. They will continue to be a breeding place for threats for years to come. I only hope the writers will know their limit and not overuse the trope. The last thing we want is another invasion of overpowered, Force-insensitive species.

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Rostislav Kurka
Rostislav is a Protestant theologian and a self-trained Sith, counting Jan Hus, Dorothee Sölle, Darth Revan and Darth Traya among his main influences. He hails from the hundred-towered city of Prague, where he had spent a large part of his life creating worlds and inspiring young generations to roleplay. His involvement in organising children's camps led him to accidentally writing a Lord of the Rings musical, which made him temporarily famous, and a Three Musketeer-Jedi fanfilm, which didn't. He has recently moved to the frozen waste of Finland, because that's it, the Rebels are there.