3.8 / 4
Outbound Flight was an ambitious project that sent an expeditionary mission of six Jedi Masters, 12 Jedi Knights and 50,000 men, women and children beyond the borders of known space to make contact with intelligent life. It was the brainchild of Jorus C'baoth, but even so influential a Jedi Master had to navigate the cumbersome Republic bureaucracy to get this monumental proposal approved.
With the foiling of a murderous plot, C'baoth gained the influence he needed to get Outbound Flight underway. In truth, this turn of fortune was carefully engineered by Darth Sidious, the shadowy Sith Lord who wants Outbound Flight to begin, and ultimately, to fail.
The mission is doomed from the start, for lurking within Unknown Space is the Chiss Ascendancy, and the brilliant alien mastermind who will someday become Grand Admiral Thrawn. Not even the presence of Obi-Wan Kenobi and his young Padawan learner, Anakin Skywalker, aboard the gargantuan vessel can avert disaster.
Paul: Everyone knows Star Wars - and everyone knows that it was created George Lucas. But while Timothy Zahn might not be so universally famous, he enjoys a reputation among many fans of the ‘Galaxy far, far away’ that is second only to that of the Man in Plaid himself.
Fifteen years ago, Zahn’s Heir to the Empire trilogy of novels spearheaded the revival of Star Wars – arriving with all the dramatic impact of a Star Destroyer slamming out of hyperspace in front of the reader. It was these books that snared many of the saga’s serious fans, hooking us deep into the ‘wider world’ beyond the movies.
A new Zahn book, in short, is an event that for some people is almost comparable to a new Star Wars movie – and we all know what that means. Of course, this also means that there’s an immense weight of expectation involved. It might seem simple to say ‘this is a Star Wars novel’, but like the grand exploration mission that gives it its name, Outbound Flight has to fulfil a myriad of different hopes and dreams.
It has to be Star Wars, recapturing the feel of the movies. It has to reflect Zahn’s own distinctive style, adding depth to the characters and mysteries that he has been developing through his work in the franchise for fifteen years. It has to tell a good story. And, above all, it has to be fresh – it can’t just be a tired re-tread of what we’ve seen before, it can’t just be storytelling-by-numbers.
Taking all this into account, it seems mind-boggling to dare that Outbound Flight will fly at all – and all the more impressive when it soars.
There's an old saying among Star Wars fans: "Space is Big"; and what sends Outbound Flight soaring to success is that it has the majesty and grandeur of a story told on a truly Galactic scale - not a Galaxy in which every planet is simply another nondescript part of the same familiar matrix, but a Galaxy that is vast and mysterious like a cavern or a cathedral, and strewn all across with diamonds...
And in this Galaxy, there are people.
A Corellian smuggler captain, his idealistic co-pilot, and their curious, inexperienced navigator. A young Chiss picket force commander with an insatiable interest in the unknown. A proud Jedi Master and his nervous padawaan. A very different Jedi Master, and his brash young apprentice. A ruthless secret agent working for the Sith.
A Republic that spans a million worlds. An enigmatic alien civilization. A savage nomad race of spacefaring pirates and slavers.
And whereas Zahn’s six previous Star Wars novels have all been set after the defeat of the Galactic Empire in Return of the Jedi – largely focused on Luke Skywalker, and chronicling the creation of a new political consensus and a new Jedi Order – Outbound Flight represents his first extended foray into the timeframe of the Prequel movies, before the rise of the Empire.
But, paradoxically, by taking a step backwards, a wider perspective opens up in front of the reader. The reality, the truth, turns out to be much bigger than we realised – and so much more fun!
If there's a theme to Outbound Flight, it's the sheer, untrammellable vastness of reality. Most of the characters in this novel think they have some grasp of the way the Galaxy works, of what's important, and of what direction they're headed in; but the sheer range of different communities who we encounter completely undercuts that, and the individuality of the people who make up those communities makes them seem like absurd illusions in their turn.
Not since 1977 has the bluster of a cynical smuggler deserved such respect; never before has the craven lack of vision of a Neimodian in a silly hat illustrated the beauty and variety of existence.
On another level, of course, there’s much that is familiar in Outbound Flight; Obi-Wan Kenobi and young Anakin Skywalker play significant roles that enrich our understanding of their actions in the movies; Palpatine and Mace Windu have well-studied cameos. Several of Zahn’s own recurring characters from his earlier novels reappear, most notably the alien military genius Thrawn.
The theme of the Outbound Flight Project itself – a grand mission of exploration into unknown space – originated in a throwaway line early in Zahn’s first novel, and has been steadily developed in his work ever since.
But there’s a newness, and a freshness here, as well. It helps that the characters are young men and women here, and that Outbound Flight takes place early in the chronology of the Star Wars saga, when Darth Vader is just a fourteen-year-old boy; but that would mean nothing if the author didn’t have the vision and skill to let his characters’ distinctive voices speak in turn against a vast backdrop of stars and darkness, and to create a grand symphony from the interplay of their differing points of view.
But although this is a novel about differences and distance, about encounters with the unknown, Zahn has always deliberately avoided alien perspectives as foreign and untranslatable. Instead, he tells the story through the eyes of ordinary men and women, creating an unspoken dialogue between foreign civilizations and the very human characters who encounter them.
Of course, there is much in the writing here that is, in a sense, familiar. Brief descriptive motifs echo like the recurring visual and musical phrases of the movies, and like the Star Wars movies, this is a story that aims to be accessible to children and adults alike. The prose is often minimal – but it is assured, too, and the occasional flashes of detail are deft and adept. I suspect there is a deliberate intelligence behind the pattern of omissions – drawing the reader’s imagination into the story, asking us to fill in the gaps in our own minds, and make our own voyages of discovery and speculation.
For about three hundred and fifty pages, Outbound Flight is a strange and wonderful novel set in a well-loved Galaxy far, far away... a story with an immediate intimacy and panoramic sweep that are both impossible on the screen.
And then, about a hundred pages from the end, things change. Palpatine intervenes to pull Obi-Wan and Anakin out of the novel, and everything starts to get out of control.
People die; individuals, and tens of thousands... yet somehow, their dreams remain.
The ending is as at once poignant, personal, and heroic. It serves as a fitting cap for the story we’ve just been told, but it also asks us to reassess everything we thought we knew, giving new levels of meaning to Zahn’s previous novels and adding deeper layers of understanding to our appreciation of the story he has told.
At least, that’s my reading of it. Other people I’ve spoken to who’ve read this book have interpreted the ending in totally different ways. And they enjoyed it just as much as I did. That, too, seems very appropriate.
It’s impossible for me to really say how Outbound Flight will work for someone who’s new to Zahn. I’ve read and reread his earlier novels with great pleasure over the years. But I have a hunch that the sense of wonder, fun and mystery will still be there. There’s a whole great Galaxy out there to explore in the ‘wide black’ – and all sorts of different ways to get into it.