Timothy Zahn – Star Wars Writer Extraordinaire

The writer who gave us Coruscant and the second major female character in Star Wars.

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Timothy Zahn at 2012 New York Comic Con. Image source: © Luigi Novi / Wikimedia Commons

On the first of September, one of the best and indisputably most influential writers of Star Wars books, Timothy Zahn, celebrated his sixty-fifth birthday. The spiritual father of admiral Thrawn, Mara Jade and scores of other amazing characters, is by no means retired, and to great joy of many fans has also recently been re-admitted to the company of the creators of Star Wars canon. His new book, named simply Thrawn, is scheduled for April 2017, and the character of the same name is going to appear in Star Wars Rebels Season 3 only a couple of weeks from now. And in relation to this, Zahn’s first three Star Wars novels (the trilogy of Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising and The Last Command, originally published in 1991-1993), are getting published again in a new outfit.

Covers for the new edition of Thrawn trilogy, art by Rich Kelly
Covers for the new edition of the Thrawn trilogy, art by Rich Kelly

Timothy Zahn’s major accomplishments are not limited to Star Wars only. He is the author of many other SF novels and short stories, his name becoming known already when he received a Hugo award for his novella Cascade Point in 1984. For the Star Wars fans, however, he has always been the father of the Expanded Universe, being the first to include characters and planets that would be later used by other authors, including George Lucas himself in the prequels. For it was this writer who had first named the Republic capitol “Coruscant” in his Thrawn trilogy. Many other Zahn’s creations have featured since in numerous comics and novels and video games, and some even outlived the abolishment of the old book canon after Disney bought the franchise. And it is all coming full circle with Zahn now creating new content for the new universe.

What should be mentioned among Timothy Zahn’s most impactful or most interesting contributions to the Star Wars lore?

In the first place there is obviously the story of the Thrawn trilogy, and admiral Thrawn himself. I am not going to go to lengths about them, but sufficient to say, the books were undoubtedly the thing that helped revive and sustain the Star Wars fandom in the 90s, in the long pause between the old trilogy and The Phantom Menace. Zahn was the first to tackle the topic J.J. Abrams and his crew had to face all over again recently, the post-Battle of Endor situation where, despite the fall of the Emperor, political forces that used to be the Empire are not giving up without a fight and the nascent Republic has to prove its right to exist. In Zahn’s version, the focal point is a charismatic Grand Admiral who manages to rally the Imperial remnant behind him, and with his strategic genius represents a real threat. Zahn was the first to tackle the theme of there being always “a story after the end of the story”, and he did so with grace.

Despite the fact that Thrawn himself is a villain and there isn’t really anything, at least in the first three books, which would give us any reason to sympathise with his cause to crush the New Republic and our favourite heroes, he has become a fan-favourite, mostly because his way of defeating his enemies is, to put it simply, so insanely cool. He does not need superiority in numbers, he is a genius, analysing his enemies based on their history, their way of thinking, in case of individual planets or races on their culture from which he draws stunning conclusions. I believe, when explaining his character to a friend, I once used the phrase “he is like Sherlock Holmes on steroids”.

Mara Jade on the cover of Mara Jade: By The Emperor's Hand comics by Dark Horse
Mara Jade on the cover of Mara Jade: By The Emperor’s Hand comics by Dark Horse

Mara Jade is notably the second major female character after princess Leia to appear in the Star Wars universe. Even that would be enough to bring her to the spotlight. Add to it the fact that she is a Force user and more importantly, also the first female character who is a villain – at least (spoilers) in the beginning. Of course she very much falls into the archetype of a basic kickass female character in early 90s, but hey, you have to start somewhere. She is the Emperor’s Hand – basically a Force user utilised for secret work, the kind of things that cannot go through official Imperial channels. Something like Vader, you could say, only with no public appearances. Completely undercover, answering directly to the Emperor, and even the Imperial official structures are not aware of her existence. Obviously, after the Emperor’s death, Mara is completely alone and without guidance – and she feels no desire to side with the power-hungry, mostly stupid admirals. That is part of what makes her character interesting, because she is a character whose life has suddenly been turned upside down, who has been uprooted and thrown into the world she doesn’t know how to handle. At first, she is only trying to survive, joining smugglers and other galactic lowlifes, but there is also something in the back of her mind, the last command she had received from the Emperor, imposed by his will upon her in such a manner that it is impossible to ignore. Eventually, she finds her way to get her life into order – after a long, long struggle – and becomes an important character in the future of the New Republic. Among all the characters from the old book canon, aside from the Skywalker offspring, she is possibly the character.

There are many more things, events, planets, species and characters which could be mentioned in relation to Timothy Zahn. Some, of course, haven’t been accepted so enthusiastically even by fans and some may seem downright ridiculous from current perspective, such as the Force-defying animals called ysalamiri or the fact that clones in the Thrawn trilogy differed from “original” people by having some letters in their name doubled. (There is a lot of weird stuff in the Thrawn trilogy regarding the Clone Wars, but one has to keep in mind that at the time, Clone Wars was a term filled with uncertainity, known almost exclusively only from Obi-Wan’s obscure references. Actually, in his 2000s novels which still followed many of his original characters, Timothy Zahn did a great job of reconciling “his” universe with the prequels, like in Outbound Flight which features even young Anakin and Obi-Wan, however in minor roles.)

Thrawn as portrayed on the preliminary cover of Timothy Zahn's upcoming canonical novel
Thrawn as portrayed on the preliminary cover of Timothy Zahn’s upcoming canonical novel

The biggest bonus of Timothy Zahn’s stories is that they are good adventures in the spirit of the film Star Wars universe, and the film characters are portrayed in a faithful manner. Zahn also does not (maybe with the exception of the ysalamiri) invent unnecessary weird stuff like many other authors do which would feel like disturbing the existing universe. Now that his most famous creation, admiral Thrawn, has found his way back to the canon (even though his story has to be, of course, rewritten to fit with the new storyline), I am hoping that perhaps his creativity can still enrichen even the new generation of fans who came to the universe with The Force Awakens. It would be a pity should such brilliant writer’s ideas be lost to memory.

Happy birthday, Timothy Zahn.

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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.