Feb 28 2013 10:30am

How Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire Turned Star Wars into Science Fiction

As part of our ongoing celebration of all things Star Wars, the next few weeks will see contributors writing about Timothy Zahn’s game-changing “Thrawn Trilogy,” a book series that arguably revitalized, and reivented Star Wars forever. From Coruscant to clones, it's hard to imagine living in a Star Wars universe without these novels!

First up, was Heir to the Empire the moment when Star Wars veered more towards hard science fiction?

In the summer of 1992, an eleven-year-old me would ride his lime-green bicycle to the steps of the Dobson Ranch Library in Mesa, Arizona, hoping each time to see if his name had advanced on the waiting list to read Heir to the Empire. And when it finally did, and I began tearing through the pages, I remember feeling a little weird. I loved it, of course, but looking back, the reason Zahn’s first Star Wars novel is so wonderfully odd is that it audaciously asserts Star Wars not as epic space fantasy, but instead, science fiction.

MILD Spoilers for Heir to the Empire

The 80’s and early 90’s were not filled with a preponderance of Star Wars junk, at least not by today’s standards. Back then, a new Star Wars comic book or novel felt important and special, with the Zahn trilogy being the most legit Star Wars thing of all. Kids playing on the playground didn’t know the “expanded universe” didn’t really count, because at that time the Star Wars universe was still expanding. As far as we were all concerned Heir to the Empire was the totally real-deal sequel to Return of the Jedi. Just look at the cover! It looks like one of the movie posters! And there’s some dude shooting lightning/lasers out of his fingers! Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s real Star Wars.

And yet, here’s a pre-Phantom Menace Star Wars story rendering the Force as a science fiction concept instead of a mystical catch-all religion. Zahn’s invention of the ysalamiri—creepy little slugs who negate the Force—is the move of an author trying to make some science fictional sense of this wacky fantasy world. Much of this first novel in what many later call the “Thrawn Trilogy” concerns the machinations of one Grand Admiral Thrawn and his complicated scheme to get the Empire back on its feet. Correctly, Zahn made his titular Heir to the Empire an alien, a blue-skinned, red-eyed Chiss who doesn’t randomly kill off his subordinates. And though my youngling self read Dune after reading Heir to the Empire, there’s something decidedly reminiscent of Dune in Thrawn’s conception of how to take over the galaxy. The Force is a commodity Thrawn knows he needs to control in order to show everyone he's the boss. In this way, the ysalamiri are more than just Jedi-kryptonite, they’re actually one piece in a larger big-bad-guy plan.

Which brings us to Joruus C’Baoth, an insane Dark Jedi clone of a Jedi named Jorus (one “u”) C’Baoth. Wait? Clones? You mean when a person’s DNA is taken to create an identical copy that person? Despite mentioning “The Clone Wars” in A New Hope, the Star Wars universe, at this point, had not actually depicted the science fiction applications of clones and cloning. But after Heir to the Empire, Zahn firmly asserted bona fide clones as part of Star Wars, and you could argue this fictional universe was never the same as a result. As far as the novel and Thrawn’s schemes go, Joruus is another component in the plan to make sure elements of the Force are firmly on the side of darkness. Instead of characters who use the Force as the main players, Heir to the Empire depicts a galaxy full of non-Force users who are totally freaked out by the Jedi and their ilk. And yes, while Luke and Leia are integral to the story, one gets the sense that the galaxy is reacting to their presence, in a very real, and political manner. This too, gives the novel more of a feeling of hard science fiction, if only because it speculates on how “normal people” (whether they are furry Bothans or blue-skinned Chiss) would really handle folks who can levitate stuff with their minds.

And what about our beloved Star Wars characters from the original trilogy? It’s here where Zahn split the difference between turning Star Wars in to a science fiction novel full of space politics, ensuring the book was still full of Star Wars stuff. Everyone seems in character, but what’s most wonderful about Heir to the Empire is that it’s truly the first time the culture experienced Luke, Han, Leia, Lando and everyone else not in opposition to Darth Vader and the Emperor. In so many ways, the characters of the films are fairly thin, archetypal people, more defined by what they are doing, rather than who they are. But here, Luke has to cope with Obi-Wan’s ghost saying goodbye forever, Leia is becoming a mother and a Jedi at the same time. Lando is still trying to make a living, and Han is struggling to apply his devil-may-care attitudes to a more civilized lifestyle. Everything the main characters get to do is exciting and feels like Star Wars (Luke getting stranded in his X-Wing in deep space is particularly memorable and deliciously Apollo 13-esque), but Zahn correctly realized these people needed new and dynamic characters to challenge them, which is why he invented not just Thrawn, but Talon Karrde, and Mara Jade too. These aren’t evil laughing assholes in black capes and cloaks. The foils for the Star Wars heroes in Heir to the Empire are fully realized, and interesting people.

Star Wars is infamously lacking in female humans not named Princess Leia, a fact corrected by the introduction of Mara Jade in Heir to the Empire. Putting Mara on both sides of the law is also a good move, as it immediately disqualifies her from damsel-in-distress status. Further, Mara Jade is probably the best ticking time bomb character in all of Star Wars, simply because she’s been programmed with one very serious order: Kill Luke Skywalker! Finally, thrusting Luke and Mara together toward the end of the book is also a fantastic and classic device. I always like a book where you can say “they’re not out of the woods yet!” when the characters are literally still in the woods.

While Heir to the Empire ends on perhaps a less-satisfying cliffhanger than “I am your father,” it does adhere to its own rules and tonal qualities. With this groundbreaking Star Wars novel, Timothy Zahn asked the question: “what if I wrote Star Wars as serious SF? What would that be like?” And the answer was: totally awesome, enthralling, and best of all, new.

Ryan Britt is a staff writer at 

1. AdultHuman
I remember these books fondly, before the expanded universe expanded out of control. I read these when I was 17 and honestly, these are the books that got me reading, I barely go near SW EU stuff now but I am thankful for these giving me a taste for all books.
William Frank
2. scifantasy
If you haven't already, take a look at the 20th-anniversary edition of Heir that came out last year. Zahn goes into some detail about his decisions and design choices and inspirations.
Chris Nelly
3. Aeryl
Oh man, did I love this series, once I was able to get into it. I was about the same age, had never been a fan of hard sci-fi, so it bothered me at first, because it was too different from Star Wars, there was all of a sudden a bunch of races and places that were never mentioned in the movies(that first diplomatic mission Leia goes on where she is attacked was a wall for me to get past), all kinds of techno babble, and Luke loving hot chocolate(which I now look at as a subtle call out to ADF's reference to ducks in the New Hope novelization), but after months of false starts, once I got to Kashyyk, I was hooked.
Nathan Martin
4. lerris
It was this book that pulled me into Star Wars fandom. Like any kid growing up in the '80s, Star Wars was part of my cultural context, but beyond a collection of action figures and vehicles it wasn't much to get excited about. My inclinations were always toward Trek.

Then I found out the author of the Cobra novels was writing the post-movies trilogy. I was excited not because it was Star Wars, but because Timothy Zahn was writing them.
Up until about 5 years ago, I had read most of the EU novels and remain a fan of both Wars and Trek. I described my Christmas tree this year as "non-denominational"- there is a Romulan Bird of Prey and a TIE Interceptor in my collection of ornaments.
5. Rootboy
I read this trilogy in middle school and adored it. I started buying up every EU book I could find until I realized none of them were nearly as good.

Kind of curious to revisit it, see how it holds up.
Jason Wesbrooks
6. jwesbrooks
Best Star Wars EU. Like AdultHuman, it was because of these books that I started reading seriously. Doubt it would have happened otherwise. Tim Zahn gets Star Wars like few other authors do.
7. Cybersnark
I hope part of this ongoing Star Wars celebration will look at the other fiction that treated Star Wars as hard(ish) sci-fi; the RPG by West End Games (which pre-dates Zahn's trilogy by several years, and which Zahn himself used as reference material).

Like Zahn's trilogy, the WEG game was set in a nearly Jedi-less universe; the only surviving Force-users were either in hiding (Obi-Wan, Yoda), untrained (Luke), or serving the Empire (Vader, Palpatine), and the fate of the galaxy was in the hands of us "mere" commoners, and our abilities to fight, strategize, bluff, con, and tinker our way through a complex, interactive sci-fi universe. In a lot of ways, the Force was more trouble than it was worth (Vader is a game-breaker, and he WILL step in). For me, growing up on WEG and the early EU (which Zahn's books pretty much set the tone for for years), Star Wars was never about the Jedi or the Force.

Come to it, that might be why the Prequels and NJO (which, remember, was published only after the Prequel saga had started) are so polarizing; suddenly we're being told that this whole saga belongs only to the Jedi/Sith. Us "peasants" who grew up without the Jedi (and their problems) can feel a little left-out.
Jeremy Clegg
8. Cleggster
I remember reading this and the others when they came out. My friends and I loved the way that they were written. Like they were actual sequels to the movies. (I was already a huge science fiction fan)

But the problem was after reading them, we all were left craving more Star Wars novels. Unfortunately the ones that came after were terrible. (except Tales from Mos Eisley). Truce at Bakura, blech.
Chris Nelly
9. Aeryl
@8 Well the EU after Zahn was hamstrung in a lot of ways, because I think one of the bigger complaints was that it wasn't Jedi centric enough for the hardcore fans(though that doesn't seem to be the consensus here) so other authors tried to delve a little deeper into the mythology with conflicting results, especially as the call for Luke to train more Jedi began.

Nobody knew anything concrete about the Force or how Lucas intended for it work story wise, so it's represntation varied wildly.

@7 I felt that NJO was one of the more important stories that represented non-Jedi pretty well. The second set of books that came out focused almost exclusively on Han, with hardly a Jedi in sight(there was a Sith around, but no one knew that about Vergere at the time). After the fall of Coruscant all the old school Rogue and Wraith crews takes center stage. The fact that the Vong were immune to the Force made the non-Force people just as crucial to the story, IMO. And Legacy and Fate are all about dealing with the repurcussions, and people's hesitancy to trust the Jedi. I think those steps did more integrate non-Jedi into the story than they had been before.
10. Timewalkerauthor
@7: I never played the game (and now I wish I had!), but it's true that the later installments were polarizing, just as you said, and for that reason. I always found it interesting that the earliest iterations of the series make it seem as though the Jedi order was on the decline, if not practically absent, for perhaps generations. It always seemed strange to me that Han, who is (if only barely) old enough to actually remember the Jedi, would treat them and the Force as superstition. It was as though this knowledge had been suppressed, not just for a few years, but over a long enough span that people would really have forgotten what life was like in a Jedi-influenced galaxy. It's not to say that there were no Jedi at all--obviously, Yoda, Obi-Wan, and Obi-Wan's references to Vader as a young Jedi, all give the lie to that--but their presence must have been minimal, if those early portrayals could be believed. And of course all of this is more pronounced in the early novelizations. At any rate, I always liked that view of the galaxy--where life was lived by the "normal" citizens, and when the Force comes into play, it's something magical. I read the EU up through the end of the NJO, and lost interest after that...I'm sure the newer books are well-written (as was the NJO, although I wouldn't call it classic Star Wars!), but the magic is gone.
11. JP3
I read this when it came out and not since, but it's somehow worked it's way into a very noticeable spot on my bookcase in the last couple months. Been thinking about reading it again and now this article. The force is strong.
12. JasonW
All of Zahn's Star Wars books are worth reading. Not all of them as are strong as the first set but they are all very enjoyable reads.
13. Donald Simmons
I remember at a convention appearance by Zahn him talking about who he came up with the name Coruscant for the Imperial (later New Republic) capital. In his briefing material it just had the name "Imperial Center" and he said that was nuts, planets have histories and names and so he gave it one. Zahn did a lot to make the Star Wars universe feel like a place people actually lived in.
Alan Brown
14. AlanBrown
This wasn't the first Star Wars spinoff I read, and I didn't read it for a long time after it came out, because of a feeling that the spinoff tales would never live up to the original. But when I did, I found it very entertaining, and definitely agree that Zahn did a great job fleshing out the SF details of the Star Wars universe. And I always preferred the non-Jedi aspects of the universe, which always felt a bit too simplistic and tainted by black and white Manicheism to me.
Once the New Jedi Order books started, I pretty much gave up on Star Wars novels, but still buy all the Zahn books.
15. Robert672
Caption should say 'an ysalamir'.
16. Lauren4493
I don't think hard sci-fi means what you think it means -

Not to say the novels aren't good, don't expand on the Star Wars universe and have some great characterisation.
Mike Kelmachter
17. MikeKelm
Thinking about this 20 years after the fact, the more I realize just how impressive Zahn's work is. After all, Lucas certainly hadn't expanded his own interpretation of the universe, and what came out of the prequels lead a lot of us fans to retcon what we had already read courtesy of Mr. Zahn.

Actually, one of the strengths of Zahn's work is that it borrowed on the "Other Star" series- Star Trek- to explain how the universe worked. Cloaking Devices and Tractor Beams show up. We had already seen psychic powers there (and in other Sci-fi), so we just assumed that's all the Force was- a psychic power some people had talents with that needed to be trained. We didn't actually need George Lucas to explain there are symbiotic midichlorians that allow us to access the force- it was just a power. But it was a power limited to a very select handful of individuals. Everyone else had to get by without it. Later EU books used the Force as a deus ex machina- our heroes are in trouble? Let a Jedi use a dazzling display of the force to single handedly fly the Millenium Falcon, or send a Star Destroyer light years away from Yavin 4, or whatever gets them out of the Jam. But Heir to the Empire was Science Fiction technology against science fiction technology.

Another strenght of the series was it filled out the galaxy. As was pointed out, the Star Wars Universe was basically a polarized filter- light or dark. The Thrawn Trilogy introduced a lot of grays into the game. Tallon Karrde and the smugglers, non-aligned forces and fleets, characters with motivations other than "beat Vader!" It made it a richer and more satisfying place.

Quick aside- one of the best commentary's on this weakness of the galaxy prior to the EU was actually done by Corran Horn in I Jedi, where he accused Luke (and by connection Lucas) as thinking of things too broadly- Galactic Good and Evil, not the minor and every day evils and choices.

The real strength of the series though, and something that wasn't resolved until New Jedi Order (and an enemy who was unaffected by the force) was that there was a serious threat. The EU after Thrawn and before NJO basically portrayed regional threats- warlords and the such- but nobody able to take down the New Republic. Thrawn not only was able to beat the New Republic regularly, but was charismatic and complicated enough of a character that readers really could buy into him uniting everyone behind his banner. And that was the strength of the series. You felt the heroes had truly saved the day and overcome the odds, not just beat down the bully.
18. Dutch_Shaun
Sir, I salute this tribute to Zahn's masterpiece(s). This was the first set of Star Wars books available in the Dutch library due to popular demand. It has shaped my view on the star wars galxy and it's characters. And as you say it made it much more alive, more vibrant then the movies ever could. What I also like is how Zahn explored relatively minor characters and gave other writers the opportunity to write entirely new saga's. Wedge Antilles and Rogue Squadron in X-wing for example. I know for sure that I will be very very sad if the new trilogy leaves no room for all these fantastic works to exist.
19. Neilwato
I was 19 when that book came out. Star Wars had ended nearly 10 years earlier when I walked out of the AMC up by Fiesta Mall (I grew up in Mesa too). From that point until I saw Heir to the Empire sitting on a shelf in Waldenbooks there was no Star Wars. I cannot describe how excited and thrilled and slightly confused I was when I saw it sitting there. I devoured that book and along with Michael Stackpole's X-Wing books I consider it the best Star Wars ever written. Thanks for writing this, and thanks for the reminder. I'm going to go convince my 13 year old to read this book next :)
Alan Brown
20. AlanBrown
@17 Tractor beams were in Star Wars before Zahn. And Zahn didn't borrow cloaking devices from Star Trek. They have been common ideas in print SF for decades.
But while I might quibble with details, I agree with your main point that Zahn did a lot to retrofit a more consistent logical foundation for the 'science' of Star Wars.
Kristen Templet
21. SF_Fangirl
This trilogy fooled me. I have always strongly preferred Star Trek to Star Wars and read/watch sci fi and not fantasy. I picked up Heir to the Empire and eagerly waited for then next two novels. and then I went on to try to read the next SW novel that came out The Courtship of Princess Leia or some other tripe and immediately stopped reading SW tie-in fiction. I still remember that trilogy as being awesome, but I never went back to SW tie-in fiction. By 1996, I had stopped buying ST tie in fiction too when it become to overwhemling and repetitive.
Chris Nelly
22. Aeryl
@21 Zahn's written several more SW novels, you should check them out. If you want the idividual back story for some of the new characters, Wookiepedia a great resource, and spares you the necessity of having to read the several tedious novels in between. I like the New Jedi Order, the next books after Zahn's last books covering the post Jedi time period, but it has its detractors as well.
23. SarahK
My mom is blind, and back in H.S., I didn't want to wait for the Braille versions of the Thrawn Trilogy to finally come out; so, I read them to her. It was much easier to share with her than the films, and she went from feeling left out of my brothers and my Star Wars conversations to joining in. Some of my favorite books and fondest memories.
24. DomK
Wow, SarahK thats such a sweet, cool story.
I read these at 13 in 93, and was blown away by them. Then like alot of youguys read the next few, realised they were shit and moved on.
25. as140
It´s a good story but the problem is, that the book has way too much plot errors. Of course no one did know the backstory of the Clone Wars but it wouldn´t been a bad idea to just ask Lucas what he meant by the term. And then there are other mistakes. Vader is called "Dark Jedi" but the term "Sith" was already used in the novelizations and the scripts of the original movies. Also Leia and Luke were talking about Vader and the Emperor maybe not knowing Yoda. But Yoda clearly states that he knew both of them.
26. Yofosho
The Star Wars X-Wing Series, Rogue Squadron and Wraith Squadron, + the Thrawn Trilogy are my all time favorite SW novels forever. The X-Wing series leads up to the Thrawn Trilogy as well, and they intersect here and there.

These books still adorn my book shelf and they are chronological order according to the extended universe timeline :). And I am keeping them to pass on to my children so they may experience the true stories (in our hearts) following Return of the Jedi.

Also to me Mara Jade was the best thing to happen for the series - here is a woman in the SW universe, with a past she struggled with being one of the Emperor's tools, and trying to move on with her life. But the reader hopes she will be "saved" , really Luke and Mara save each other, rather than her being a simpleton Damsel in distress.

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