Friday, March 18, 2016

STAR WARS 1999: Vector Prime by R.A. Salvatore

STAR WARS reached an interesting stage in its history by the end of the nineties. The saga had been supported almost exclusively by the stories of the Expanded Universe for most of that decade, but by 1999 George Lucas was prepared to continue the story in the prequel films. The creative teams still tasked with following the adventures of the Star Warriors in the years after EPISODE VI were left with an interesting dilemma: On the one hand they had to find a way to maintain audience interest outside the movies now that there were new movies to contend with, but on the other they had to come up with a fresh story that didn't simply repeat those already explored in the pages of the Expanded Universe.

The New Republic's never-ending struggles with the remnants of the Empire were too derivative of the original trilogy. It seemed as though the books had nothing new to say. Timothy Zahn wrapped up the war with the Empire in 1998 with the conclusion of his Hand of Thrawn duology, so if the stories were going to continue beyond that point, they would need a new villain. The books and comics also struggled with remaining relevant, since there were no significant advances they could make with the characters and storylines. So the creative forces behind the Expanded Universe did what anyone does when they are striving to remain relevant: They did something shocking in a desperate effort to get attention.

In 1999, between the theatrical release of EPISODE I and its home video release on VHS (it would not be released on DVD until 2001), the books launched a new epoch for the Expanded Universe, the New Jedi Order, with the publication of Vector Prime.

Vector Prime was intended to be the start of a new era in the STAR WARS Expanded Universe, but it unfortunately inherited a lot of story weaknesses from its predecessors. Even though the new story was meant to pit the heroes against an all-new threat to the galaxy, we still have to sit through a lot of political intrigues surrounding the diplomatic responsibilities of the New Republic. Del Rey had re-obtained the publishing rights, which meant a new stable of authors would be creatively involved in developing the ongoing storylines. Despite this the architecture of the stories was still being mapped out by people who had creatively lost their way when it came to planning the future of the STAR WARS universe.

RA Salvatore was commissioned to pen the inaugural chapter of the New Jedi Order cycle, which would be a milestone in the expanded canon for a number of reasons. The first was that it was written in conjunction with EPISODE I, so some basic information about the prequel era was available to the writers and could influence their work. The second distinction, which was an extension of the first, was that this epoch followed Luke’s efforts to establish a new Jedi Council. Now that the writers had learned there used to be a Jedi Council, suddenly the characters knew it too. Third, this storyline introduced a new villain, the Yuuzhan Vong, meaning that our heroes were no longer mopping up after the movies by continuously fighting increasingly less interesting remnants of the Galactic Empire. It also gave us a new generation of heroes. Now that the Solo children were too old to be getting kidnapped all the damn time, they were old enough to study the Force and take their place in the saga as the next generation of Jedi Knights.

And more importantly, they were apparently old enough to take their rightful place as sex objects for nerd fantasies.

The final major story point introduced by Vector Prime was the one that secured it eternal infamy and enmity in the annals of expanded history: It was in this book that we witnessed for the first time the death of a core character in the Expanded Universe.

The New Jedi Order was the brain child of editors from Del Rey and Dark Horse Comics, one of whom was Dark Horse's Randy Stradley. Stradley got his start in comics writing a forgettable story called "The Alderaan Factor" for the original Marvel STAR WARS comic. He commemorated this event by writing a fairly unenthusiastic introduction to Dark Horse's 6th trade paperback collection reprinting the original Marvel STAR WARS comics. I have no idea what his intentions were or what his actual affection for the STAR WARS saga was, but Stradley just didn't seem very respectful of the saga or previous entries that had been created to expand upon it. His contribution to the New Jedi Order echoed this sentiment. The architects of that storyline decided that the best way to get attention and to foster a sense of dramatic tension was to destroy one of the core characters from the film. George Lucas vetoed the death of Luke Skywalker, but no longer forbid them from killing any major characters. Of those they were allowed to eliminate, Stradley suggested the most emotionally significant action they could take would be to "kill the family dog".

Because who doesn't love to see that in a story?

See Stradley's interview with for more details. Ultimately the decision was made that Chewbacca would have to go and that Vector Prime showed us the (supposedly) final fate of everyone's favorite Wookiee.

Unless this is the sort of thing you're into, you sick freak.

For years RA Salvatore had a bad rap with fans for this, but he wrote what he was told to write. Chewie's death was documented by him in the novel, but it was in no way his doing. He wasn't involved in that decision at all.

Vector Prime was a big deal from a marketing perspective. Like Heir to the Empire in 1991, it even had its own TV commercial.  The commercial featured a teaser VO by Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker...

The story opens with the same basic setup as many of the earliest expanded stories, which was curiously the same setup as the prequel films: With a diplomatic mission to sort out some kind of political struggle off on some nothing planet under the pretext that this conflict would in any way affect the New Republic or the saga in general. We’re barely a few pages in before we are steeped in loads of thick and tedious back story. It is 21 years after the Battle of Endor. Leia is traveling to meet with the Osarians to negotiate a ceasefire between them and their rebelling underclass, the Rhommamoolians. She is escorted by Luke Skywalker’s wife, Mara Jade, who is the Jedi mentor of Leia’s now 16 year old daughter, Jaina. Almost immediately we learn that Mara is suffering from a mysterious molecular disorder that is slowly killing her. Everyone else who has contracted the disorder has died, but Mara’s Jedi discipline has apparently given her greater strength to fight it. This is in no way connected to their current mission, but it’s something you need to know moving forward with the story.


Almost immediately their ship is attacked, but they are defended by one of the starfighters in their escort, which is piloted by a glory-seeking trigger-happy young Jedi. This establishes early on one of the underlying concerns of this story, which will be particularly critical to Luke’s arc: The general lack of order or supervision in terms of the new Jedi. Luke created an Academy to train new Force sensitive young people in the hopes that this would keep them from straying to the Dark Side, but without any formal oversight he’s basically just unleashed a crop of self-righteous supermen on the galaxy who have no formal set of rules to govern them and no central authority to which they are accountable.

This dilemma is one of the more interesting aspects of the book. Through the characters, Salvatore explores some of the principle concerns that will arise in the prequels and will later inform the third trilogy. Is the Jedi philosophy sufficient to temper one’s sensibilities in the way they use the Force? Should that be organized and regulated by a governmental authority? Can it be? And what is the ultimate goal of the Jedi? Is it external achievement or the search for inner peace? In this story we see the burden that Luke faces while representing the last vestige of the original Jedi philosophy. He has a responsibility to honor that legacy, but an even greater responsibility to not repeat the same mistakes that led to the downfall of the Jedi and the Old Republic. That dilemma is well expressed and well explored in this book, even though it doesn’t really speak to the rest of the story.

Leia’s efforts are about as fruitless to her mission as they is pointless to the story. As soon as her team arrives they meet with the rebel leader Nom Anor, who is actually a Yuuzhan Vong invader sowing discord in order to de-stabilize the New Republic. To this end he wears a black cape and helmet to look like Darth Vader and basically insults Leia until she leaves. I’m not sure how this furthers his mission, because appearing to be her ally would have been more to his advantage than antagonizing her. The Yuuzhan Vong seem to be primarily motivated by a basic sense of dickishness and outside of just wanting to conquer stuff, we really never get a sense of what they’re about or why they’re there.

On Coruscant, Luke takes Jacen Solo to address the Senate, now led by their power-hungry former rival, Borsk Fey'lya. Just as he did when petitioning to found a new Jedi Academy, Luke feels that it is important to seek the New Republic's blesing in re-founding the Jedi Council. We see why this is necessary both from observing the earlier expanded stories and the prequel films. Luke’s Jedi Academy helped create some pretty sinister supervillains and at this point in the story, hasn’t done the galaxy a whole lot of good. Even the Jedi who are motivated to police the galaxy do so at their own discretion and by their own rules, so nobody’s really sure if they’re good for the galaxy or not. 

From the prequels we get an even more ominous warning: The Jedi Council are accidentally instrumental in allowing a Sith Lord to take control of the government, they raise and train the worst monster in the history of the universe, and they build an army of soulless slaves to fight in a galactic war they started, declaring themselves generals of the government’s soldiers and unilaterally deciding the course of the war until finally they get themselves wiped out and leave the galaxy at the mercy of an evil empire they helped to create. 

"Handled that situation a little better, we could have."

All concerns about the role of the Jedi brought up in this book are vindicated in the prequels and the Clone Wars series. Though the New Jedi Order storyline is not part of the canon created to surround the third trilogy, it sets the tone for Luke’s dilemma in EPISODE VII as well. We can see in stories like this one just how easy it would have been for Luke to create a New Jedi Order and accidentally usher in a new age of darkness. That’s reason enough to go sulk on an island while trying to think of better ideas.

After re-grouping, the gang decides to head out to Lando Calrissian’s asteroid belt near the planet Dubrillion, where Lando has been experimenting with external shield generators so strong they can protect a fighter from collisions remotely. This development has led to a new gambling opportunity, as pilots test themselves to see how long they can ride the belt before having what would have been a fatal encounter with one of the asteroids. Everybody gets a turn until Han and Chewie try their hand at it. During their run the external shield generator fails and their harmless romp through the belt becomes a race against death itself.

You may be asking yourself at this point: What do any of these vignettes have to do with the overall story? Very little, to be honest. While the Star Warriors are vacationing in Lando’s hideaway and having hilarious near-death experiences in the asteroid belt, the real story is playing out in another part of the galaxy.

On the planet Belkadan, a small group of scientists on a remote outpost are monitoring the very edge of the galaxy. Little do they know that their group has been infiltrated by Yuuzhan Vong warrior Yomin Carr, whose mission is to poison the planet and prevent them from communicating with the New Republic so that no one will detect their worldship war cruiser breaching the barrier to allow the Yuuzhan Vong invasion fleet to cross over from their native galaxy to the next. 

A lot of questions arise from this plan right away: First, is there only one spot in the galaxy to do this? Could they not have just come through somewhere that wasn’t being scanned by scientists? And if they had never breached the barrier, how did they know the scientists were there? How did Yomin Carr get there? Nom Anor was also already positioned in our galaxy, so how did he get through? And if the Yuuzhan Vong are so skilled at taking over prominent positions in this galaxy, why do they need to sneak in an invasion fleet?

Despite the incomprehensible plot of the Yuuzhan Vong, this side story (that is really the main plot of the book) is the most exciting. The adventures of the scientists on the planet are a pretty solid story, and I think this book would have worked better if it had only focused on them instead of trying to be a STAR WARS story. This is more of a science fiction thriller than a space adventure, so we only know it is a STAR WARS story because they keep cutting away to show us the core characters doing STAR WARS stuff somewhere else. 

We learn that the Yuuzhan Vong are dedicated to destroying the Jedi to eliminate them as a threat, which is why they targeted Mara Jade with a molecular disorder in the first place. But then we see that they can contaminate an entire planet, which is what Yomin Car does on Belkadan, so why aren’t they just doing that wherever they go? Why target specific people when they could just plant a plague on every planet they find? Thus far they have infiltrated the new galaxy without being discovered, so breezing in with a fleet of warships seems like the only way to guarantee that their insidious plot will be discovered. It feels like several stories got written into the same book and Salvatore did his best to tie them all together even though they had nothing to do with each other.

This is the problem with a lot of the Expanded Universe stories at that time. They were written like science fiction instead of fantasy. The Yuuzhan Vong invasion is a dark story that has stronger roots in scifi horror than the swashbuckling sense of space fantasy STAR WARS stories are meant to evoke. Even the name Vector Prime sounds more like science fiction, but that's too granular a complaint to hold against it.

As the story progresses, Jedi Knight Kyp Durron leads his vigilante squadron - the Dozen and Two Avengers - across the galaxy looking for trouble to get into until they find more than they can handle. When the squadron investigates the escalating activities near Belkadan, they run into scores of Yuuzhan Vong coral skippers - living starfighters - and only Kyp escapes to return to the New Republic and warn them of the threat. Kyp’s Jedi student - Miko Reglia - survives, but is taken prisoner by the Yuuzhan Vong.

Losing contact with Kyp’s squadron, Lando grows concerned so Luke and Mara head out to investigate. Lando also talks Han into taking a cargo shipment to the out of the way world of Sernpidal, where Han, Chewbacca, and Anakin discover a plot to destroy the planet by dragging its smaller moon out of orbit into a fatal collision with the planet’s populace.

The kind of plan you'd expect this guy to come up with.

Miko Reglia is imprisoned with Danni Quee, the sole survivor of the scientific team that originally discovered the Yuuzhan Vong. They attempt to escape but their captor, Prefect Da’Gara, is only toying with them. The Vong's goal is to wear Danni down into joining them while breaking Miko’s spirit so they can feed him to their war coordinator, a giant telepathic monster who apparently fattens up its prey by overwhelming them with fear and despair.

Luke and Mara have a run-in with Yomin Carr while investigating the research outpost on Belkadan. Mara kills him in a duel and from the outpost’s records they find that the team was tracking a strange object to the frozen fourth planet of the Hesla System. So they’re off to the frozen planet to dig deeper.

Mara Jade vs. Yomin Carr

Right about here’s where it all starts to get real.

On Sernpidal, Chewie and Anakin race to shut down the source of the gravity well before it can drag the moon to the planet’s surface. They’re too late, and atmospheric conditions become so volatile they can’t get back to the Millennium Falcon, which is now overloaded with refugees. Finally Chewie manages to lob Anakin onto the ramp, but he can’t get through the raging winds to make it aboard himself. Han has Anakin pilot the Falcon while he continues to try to help Chewie, but the building winds pull them even further apart. Han wants to move in closer, but the moon’s imminent collision with the planet forces Anakin to pull out before they’re all destroyed. Han watches helplessly as they leave Chewbacca behind on a dying planet.

"Thanks for nothin', Anakin."

This creates some conflict between Han and his youngest son. Not being able to reconcile his leave-no-man-behind mentality with the senseless death of this dearest friend, Han blames Anakin for leaving Chewbacca on Sernpidal when all indications were that Anakin made the right call.

Everyone returns to Lando’s base on Dubrillion in time to defend against an all-out assault by the Yuuzhan Vong. In keeping with their general policy of dickish behavior, Da’Gara’s Vong warriors mobilized in an assault force against the Sernpidal refugees. Following them to Dubrillion, the Vong give them very little time to prepare. Lando puts together a ragtag fleet of whatever ships are available and whoever will stick around to pilot them, with the Youngling Solos leading the charge.

During the battle, Luke and the young Solos get the sense that the Vong's coralskippers were way too coordinated in the their attacks, much like the Emperor and Joruus C’Baoth used to use the Force to keep the Imperial fleet fighting as a single well-oiled machine. Luke decides that whatever is coordinating the fighters is probably under the frozen surface of Hesla’s fourth planet. Lando, who has mined just about every type of topography imaginable, has a specialized icebreaker ship that can blast through the ice and allow its pilot to swim beneath and hopefully discover the location of the Vong base and whatever is keeping their attacks so coordinated. Having captured one of Yuuzhan Vong pilots, Luke and Lando have one of their organic enviro-suits and have figured out how to use it. 

Luke suggests that a fleet can attack the planet using the shield ships Lando used for his mining operation on Nklon, which was so close to its sun that giant umbrella ships with super shielding had to physically protect any incoming vessels from the sun. This shielding allowed the ships to not simply deflect that energy, but absorb and re-distribute it, so Luke’s plan is to weaponize that technology to draw energy from the Heslan sun and use it to superheat the frozen surface of the planet. Not only will this further break away the ice that gives the Vong their protective cover, but it will result in a fog cover that the Republic ships can use to camouflage their attack. A final - one would say singularly necessary - result of this would be that superheating the planet and suddenly allowing it to re-freeze could create such a distinct shift in pressure that it de-stabilizes the entire planet.

"That's just good science."

Jacen and Jaina hijack the icebreaker, deducing that Luke and Mara are not perfectly suited to the mission due to Mara’s condition. It’s a scouting expedition to discover the source of the Vong’s battle coordination, which Jacen decides he can do as easily as Luke while Jaina can pilot the carrier necessary to transport the drill-ship to the planet. Upon his descent, however, Jacen hears a calling in the Force, a cry for help, so he pilots to the source of the call and discovers where Danni Quee and Miko Reglia are being held prisoner. Jacen tries to save them, but they are overrun by Vong warriors and Miko sacrifices himself to allow Jacen and Danni to escape.

A New Republic Star Destroyer leads an assault on the planet and blows it up by using shield ship technology to heat and cool the planet until it explodes. In the battle, New Republic forces pay a terrible toll and the Star Destroyer is lost. Luke only narrowly escapes the blast when the others are forced to leave him behind. Having faced the same decision Anakin had to face on Sernpidal - leaving one behind to save many - illustrates for Han the impossible position his son was put in and he decides to go easy on him over the whole Chewbacca thing. At this point all the Solo younglings are flying around like full-fledged Jedi Knights fighting wars and stuff, so as a parent he’s got bigger fish to fry anyway. 

The whole book closes on this down note, with Han’s realization that the death of Chewbacca means that none of them are safe. This new threat is terribly real.

Vector Prime is kind of all over the place and, mostly due to the circumstances of its creation, it's a little too dark for a STAR WARS story, but it's an entertaining book. Salvatore is a capable writer and the concerns that face Luke regarding the Jedi continue to be valid in the STAR WARS saga today. 

The death of Chewbacca was meant to validate the Expanded Universe as being a valid contributor to canon, but it may have been the driving force behind the decision to dismiss this epoch from the new canon. Disney relies heavily on the source material they purchased when they bought the STAR WARS universe from George Lucas, but having no Chewbacca seems to have been a deal-breaker when developing their new trilogy of films. Most of the back story referenced in EPISODE VII does not contradict and is no contradicted by the Expanded Universe, with the conspicuous exception of Chewie's death, which has been decisively disregarded in the new continuity.

Vector Prime is the beginning of what will be its own little pocket continuity of STAR WARS, an alternate version of the saga and its future. Disney's choice to brand the early expanded works as "Legends" is apropos. Legends often have versions that contradict each other and cycles of the mythology that aren't exactly consistent when viewed as a whole. But those stories are all part of the mythology, and over time, these epochs can evolve into epics all their own.

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