It's finally here: the most anticipated Star Wars novel in years, Darth Plagueis by James Luceno, is out today. The book tells the story of Plagueis, the Muun Dark Lord of the Sith, as he foments galactic turbulence and interstellar strife, studies the deepest and most elusive aspects of the Force, and converts young Palpatine of Naboo into the fearsome Darth Sidious, destined to become Senator, Chancellor, and eventually Emperor. As befits a story of such epic proportions, hype about this book's contents has been gathering ever since Del Rey and Lucasfilm brought it back from cancelation. Author James Luceno is no stranger to Prequel-era tales of the ascendant Sith Order, having written such Star Wars novels as Labyrinth of Evil and Cloak of Deception. Last month, I spoke to Luceno about the process of transforming a scene from Revenge of the Sith into a novel that lays the groundwork for the entire Prequel Trilogy.
What first got you interested in writing this book?
The initial idea actually came from Lucasfilm when it was pitched to me as strictly a story about Darth Plagueis. The book was canceled for a period of time; after I had outlined the first version of the book, it was sort of decided that the real story was Palpatine. So when I pushed to get Lucasfilm to reconsider doing the book, the proviso was that I back off a little bit from the Plagueis story that I had originally proposed and pull Palpatine more into the novel.
How closely did you work with Lucas Licensing on Darth Plagueis? How much did George get involved? What advice did he give you?
George was involved in the early stages. When the book was first proposed, I wrote to him and asked whether there was any reason why Plagueis couldn't be a non-human, and he wrote back that Plagueis could be a Muun and sent me some artist renderings of the character. From that point on, everything was approved, as they're saying, “at the highest level.” I worked most closely with George's right-hand man at Lucas licensing, Howard Roffman. It was a strange way to go about the book, because I kind of had to bypass both Del Rey and the usual editorial staff at Lucasfilm and work directly with Howard over the course of what amounted to about a year of preparation.
I submitted many, many versions of the outline until we finally reached consensus on where we wanted to go with the book. The marketing text about “this is canon at the highest level” – I suppose that's true, that a lot of the stuff came from the very top levels of Lucasfilm. Everything was approved at that high level. I had to make the assumption that Howard was speaking directly with George about a lot of this stuff. I didn't have any meetings directly with George, but it seemed like a lot of the approval was coming through him to Howard. I was not privy to all of the things that happened behind the scenes.
You briefly mention that Tenebrous' Twi'lek Sith Master created “a rend in the Force,” and that the two of them tried to create a virus that specifically targeted the Jedi. Were those always intended to be incidents mentioned in passing, or did you ever want to expand on those events?
The rend in the Force, that idea that an event occurred two-hundred years before the events of The Phantom Menace…I don't know where I got that. I either created it or I read some passing reference to the fact that the Jedi Order had become very clearly aware of the reemergence of the Dark Side two hundred years earlier. I've always played with that, and I think I mentioned it earlier, maybe in Labyrinth of Evil or in Dark Lord. The timing worked out for it to be Tenebrous' master who opened that rend. I think there's a cool story there. I haven't really given it a lot of thought, and I left a lot of little openings in the Plagueis book for possible stories that could be set in those earlier decades or centuries.
Darth Plagueis' quest to influence midi-chlorians is one of the primary storylines in the book. What do you think about The Phantom Menace's introduction of midi-chlorians? Do they dilute the fantasy aspect of the Force?
Initially I didn't like it. I thought it was going to be too limiting, and in some respects I still feel that way – that the Force was more mysterious before the introduction of midi-chlorians. But since that had become part of the saga, there was no way around it. Based all the talks I had with Howard and people at Lucas Licensing, that was going to have to be a primary part of the book. Everybody agreed about that. I think I found a way to make use of midi-chlorians, but I'm still not sure about it. What I did like about it was that it allowed me to play with a more rational or scientific way to investigate the Force. It allowed me to turn Plagueis into more of a scientist, more of a researcher than a mystic, although I still consider him a mystic. He has that other side of him as well. Matt Stover picked up on that in his story The Tenebrous Way, where even Tenebrous, given his Bith ancestry, was experimenting in a way that made him almost like the mad scientist of science-fiction novels.
I kept thinking of that H.G. Wells story The Island of Lost Souls. That was my inspiration for that part of Plagueis' character. A lot of [Plagueis' unique approach to being a Sith] came out of those discussions I had with Howard. Every time I made reference to the actions of the Sith just drawing from EU sources, the thing that would come back to me was, “Well, who told you that? How do you know it works that way? Where in the movies does it say that the Sith operate that way or that way?” So I had to keep coming back to what we know from the films as the jumping-off point for a lot of this stuff. From the very beginning, it was clear that Plagueis' relationship with Palpatine was going to be very different from the kinds of relationships we've seen between Sith masters and their apprentices in the novels.
You mention Mother Talzin of the Dathomiri Nightsisters, a character we've already seen on The Clone Wars. Did you work with Dave Filoni and his team as they were preparing to introduce her last year? Did you collaborate with them in terms of how you handled Maul?
There was a lot of back and forth with Dave about Maul and Maul's background. The two short stories that I've written for the re-release of Shadow Hunter and the re-release of The Phantom Menace novelization are going to deal a lot more with Maul's background and Maul's early years. They almost could be chapters lifted from Darth Plagueis, but I didn't want to change the point of view and take the story into recounting Maul's episodes as well. The story that's in Shadow Hunter especially is going to explain a lot about Maul's transition to Sith-hood, and I did work very closely with Dave on that, because they had their own ideas about Maul's background and we went back and forth until we reached an agreement on how we were going to present the material.
One of the best things about this book is that there are so many moments that make you grin and say, “Oh, this is great, because it ties into that thing from the Prequels.” One of my favorite examples is when the Dark Side stops Plagueis from naming Kamino to Sifo-Dyas as Jocasta Nu walks over to them. Did you sit down and watch the Prequels and look for unexplained or intriguing story elements to expand on in the book?
You know, I've watched them so many times over the years, going back to the work I did with Cloak of Deception, but this time, I didn't go back and watch the movies very frequently except if there was one scene that I wasn't sure about. I was really trying to go by my memory of the films and my sense of it – my feelings about the atmosphere of the films. I had to do a lot of research for this book. I had to delve deeply into what seemed like the hundred years preceding the story to really get a sense of where things originated, what the histories of all these events were. Of course, Kamino plays a big part in that, so I had to give thought to who made the initial contact and where the funding came from, all those little details.
Some people have mentioned that they don't like the idea of Palpatine getting a back-story in the Expanded Universe because it takes away too much of his mystery. What do you think of that concern? Should there be certain things in Star Wars that are mentioned but kept off limits for extensive development?
I was really worried about that. In fact, when the project was initially canceled, I actually was relieved. I had recently read this quote that had to do with the character of Moriarty in the Sherlock Holmes novels. There was very little background ever given about Moriarty, the idea being that Moriarty represented evil for Holmes in the same way that Palpatine represented evil for the Star Wars saga. I was really concerned about the danger of humanizing [Palpatine] too much, really giving him a back-story. But then I started to think about the fact that, in the [film] saga, we do get a back-story on Anakin, on Vader, whereas before the Prequels, Vader was evil. We get to see his transition. So I began to see that there might be a way to do this without really diminishing the character that we've come to know in the films.
Click here for more of my interview on Suvudu. Star Wars: Darth Plagueis is on sale today, and I highly recommend you pick it up. Big thanks to James Luceno for taking the time to discuss his work with me!