The Essential Chronology
by Kevin J. Anderson and Daniel Wallace, art by Bill Hughes
Published by Del Rey
Helen's Rating: 3 out of 4
Chris's Rating: 3 out of 4
This is a project first heard about in late 1994 in USA Today's story on Kevin Anderson. On the Star Wars Echo on FIDOnet more info came out about "The Star Wars Timeline": originally set to publish in '97, it was to be a novel about Luke Skywalker building his own Jedi Holocron long years past the Battle of Endor. That plot would have set the margins surrounding perhaps the grandest Star Wars novel ever attempted: one book tying together everything that had been revealed in film or on pages about the saga. Five thousand-plus years of fictional history spread out in epic glory. Star Wars meets James A. Michener.
Nearly six years later and the delivery has been drastically altered. But even so, Star Wars: The Essential Chronology has finally arrived. No longer a story about Luke, it's now the first edition of a history that the New Republic historians see as a "work in progress".
Perhaps one of the most arduous tasks undertaken in the Star Wars Essential Guide series from Del Rey, The Essential Chronology is a must-have for the fan that wants to know all there is to know of the sweeping saga set in the galaxy far, far away. Integrating the various Star Wars sources was near to impossible, but the Essential Chronology by Anderson and Wallace shows that it can be done. Anderson and Wallace have done an admirable job at making sense of a dizzying array of sources, from the movies, the novels, the comics, children's books, game playing material, and even the video games. In lesser hands, the result might not have been so successful.
The organization of The Essential Chronology deserves special note. Deciding to make the Chronology a "historical record" serves to impart a structure necessary for bringing the source material together. Without this structure, it may have been too difficult to follow as a cohesive saga. The level of inclusiveness was astounding, and at times, served to educate this fan. For example, although I have read most of the novels twice, I am not up to date on the comics, nor do I ever expect to be - those titles would cost a small fortune to acquire now. The Essential Chronology helped fill in the background of the Tales of the Ancient Jedi Knights and give the saga a depth it didn't have for me before. One example of this was the retelling of the history of the Sith, which gave Maul and Sidious an added dimension not seen in TPM. Maul's line (paraphrasing) "At last, we will have our revenge" made a lot more sense to me after reading the Chronology, casting the Jedi and Sith - two diametrically combatants - in perspective. In addition, the Essential Chronology helped refresh me on facts I had forgotten or mis-remembered. For someone wanting to catch up on titles they may have missed or to check facts and details, the Essential Chronology will be an irreplacable resource.
This book has a lot of good stuff going for it, and not just the plethora of information put together here. Some of the problems that have arisen as the prequels and the Expanded Universe meet have been dealt with: how the incongruity between the Outbound Flight project and the Clone Wars is solved was subtle, but brilliant. It's deliberately vague in the places that we don't know about yet, such as the Clone Wars. The transition is obscure by obligation but the weld is seamless.The EC finishes just before the Yuuzhan Vong invade in the New Jedi Order series, but even so there are hints of something ominous around the corner.
I have to mention the art, because it's some of the most inspired I've seen for Star Wars since the SW Galaxy card series some years ago, certainly for a "technical" book. Take the image on page 49: seeing Alderaan from the bridge of the Death Star is one thing; it's quite another to be looking at the Death Star from the ground! Even in black and white it's a picture in the truest SW style, and it's one I would love to see rendered in painted color someday as a poster or lithograph. Other people and moments of SW lore are depicted, some for the first time: Warlord Zsinj (who reminded me of that bumbling lieutenant from the old "Zorro" serials), the wedding of Han and Leia, the Darksaber, Bevel Lemelisk (chief architect for the Death Star), and others. Kudos to Bill Hughes for his wonderful artwork. It's both wonderful on its own, and something that should plead for Lucasfilm to commission more original renderings based on the saga.
If you never had time to read ALL the novels and comics, or you've missed a few along the way and don't want to feel "left out", the Essential Chronology is a must-have. Anderson and Wallace have done a tremendous job by encapsulizing the Expanded Universe with the movies.
The nit-picky fan and frustrated academic in me would have liked footnotes for the various sources, in order to read the source materials and to judge for myself whether I agreed with the choices made by the authors. However, I recognize this wasn't the book that Anderson and Wallace were trying to write, and the timeline at the end of the book is helpful in providing the needed references.
The work done by Anderson and Wallace serves to illustrate one failure of the Star Wars movies: the roles held by women. Despite the contributions to the films made by Amidala / Padme, Princess Leia, and Mon Mothma, I have always thought their characterizations were a little flat for core protagonists, and as women. However, in the Chronology, the contributions of women, as women, to the overall saga are given a weight equal to the men, and by their inclusion, highlighted. In the novels and comics, women are not mere tokens, but protagonists of prominence, such as Nomi Sunrider and Mara Jade. As a female fan reading the Chronology, I was both heartened and disappointed at the same time.
Though this is supposed to be "the definitive history" of the Star Wars saga, it doesn't necessarily mean that ALL the SW stories should be included. As a historian I found this book to be a treasure trove of information but a clunky read for a "history" text, and that may derive from the fact that nearly every SW story gets squeezed into the Essential Chronology: movies, novels, comics, the Dark Forces games, the children's books... it's a wonder that the "Holiday Special" didn't find a place in the canon, or Jax the giant rabbit from the old Marvel series. It's an approach that robs an epic of that "flowing" historical feeling and reduces it back to the names and dates that high school students cringe over. Apart from its use as a timeline, some SW fans might find the Essential Chronology to be dry reading, even boring.
There are some inconsistencies that make one wonder how they got past the proofreaders. Remember the taxating of trade routes that motivated the Trade Federation to invade Naboo in TPM? "Palpatine's enthusiastic support of the taxation measure may have..." (pg. 22). Huh? Palpatine supported a tax that he later condemned? When did that happen? And if there's always been the "one Padawan" rule, why does Master Arca have three apprentices? It's not explained, it's just "there", almost like we're dealing with two separate grade of Jedi. And there's the matter of the Emperor's resurrection in "Dark Empire": is it the real Palpatine or isn't it? Timothy Zahn strongly implied in "Vision Of The Future" that it wasn't, while Anderson uses the Essential Chronology to say that it was. This see-saw battle between "exercise for the reader" and "set-in-stone canon" is becoming a little frustrating.
Only a picture of the Ewoks? No more than a caption mentioning their heroism, even in passing? It could have been done in subtle way, such as "Assisted by a tribe of indigenous sentient creatures on Endor, General Solo's strike force succeeded in destroying the bunker and bringing down the planetary shield protecting the Second Death Star." But this is more a tongue-in-cheek comment than a real criticism.
Well, there's no way to tiptoe around it: the situation with all these Sith (the books/comics Sith and the movie Sith) is SNAFUed, and trying to "fix" it is the Essential Chronology's greatest failure. It's trying to save the patient but it's like holding Frankenstein's monster together with Band-Aids, and this was where the "history" feel was the clunkiest. There's no reconciling the "two Siths" at this point and making "Sith" generically synonymous with "cult" cheapens what TPM established the Sith as: the dichotomous opposite of the Jedi philosophy. And it's "quick fixes" like this that make the Essential Chronology seem less a sleek canoe in many places than it does a patched-up rubber raft. Does this mean that the "Tales Of The Jedi"-era stuff should be thrown away? No, but it does mean that serious "retroactive continuity" will be needed someday if the goal is any consistency. This isn't a slam on Anderson and Wallace by any means, but it does point to a problem of SW literature: it's become so self-contradictory and overloaded with "story solutions" that it's no longer a grand epic in step with the movies, but a bunch of stories that happen to share the same characters. Reconciling it all would be a Herculean task, though the authors do make a great effort to do so. But apart from Lucasfilm taking the ship in, scraping off the barnacles and giving SW fiction a massive overhaul, it's a ship that, apart from the movies, isn't as fast as it should be.