There is a problem in writing the story of an inevitable disaster. Stories, particularly stories of adventure and heroism, focus on victories and narrow escapes. When a venture is doomed from the start, it becomes difficult to write about it. One path is of course to tell the story as if success is possible only to have it all end in a crushing defeat. This is the kind of narrative that tends to depress and irritate readers. Then there is the second path which is to assume that failure is a given and then begin relating the causes of that failure and the very human failures that brought it about.
Timothy Zahn takes this approach in Outbound Flight, a prequel set in the closing years of the Old Republic, which is in many ways the Jedi version of the Titanic, a massive and ambitious venture which ended in a historic disaster, a display of hubris rebounding in a massive cascade of destruction.
But the same difficulty of writing the story of an inevitable disaster haunts Outbound Flight as much as it haunts the prequel movies and stories. Since the Old Republic is destined to fall in fire and ash, evil to triumph for quite some time, we know how the story already ends and it ends badly. More to the point the story of the triumph of evil is not nearly as interesting or dramatic as the story of good, particularly since the forces of good as a result display themselves as being either corrupt, incompetent or well meaning but ultimately useless. That is also the story Timothy Zahn tells in Outbound Flight.
While behind the scenes Chancellor Palpatine, Darth Sidious and their henchman, Kinman Doriana, manipulate the events of Outbound Flight into motion, arranging for its flight and eventual destruction, in the foreground Jedi Master Jorus C’baoth, sensing a dark force coming into the galaxy, namely the Yuuzhan Vong, forces the creation of the Outbound Flight expedition carrying six Jedi Masters, twelve Jedi Knights and a number of force sensitive children along with twelve thousand personnel on six dreadnoughts on a mission to scout territory and possibly colonize planets along the way, venturing through Wild Space and into the Unknown Regions.
Master Jorus C’baoth is arrogant and driven. Meanwhile his Padawan, his student, Lorana Jizzler, is well meaning and friendly but constantly nervous and utterly useless up until the end. Despite the presence of six other Jedi masters, Jorus C’baoth somehow monopolizes leadership and command and takes a dictatorial control over everyone on board Outbound Flight down to the smallest details. The results alienate everyone from the Captain on down to the engineering crew but predictably no one including Lorana is capable of opposing Jorus.
This being a prequel, Anakin Skywalker and Obi Wan of course must appear on Outbound Flight, temporarily placed on board to try and monitor the situation. Anakin admires and hero worships Jorus C’baoth while Obi Wan Kenobi displays his suspicions of Jorus C’baoth, but despite clinging to his heels and occasionally making a useless protest, he proves to be as hapless in dealing with Jorus as he eventually turns out to be with Anakin. Obi Wan and Anakin are removed early from Outbound Flight making the final outcome inevitable, though indeed it was inevitable anyway. At the core that is the problem with the story. It’s an inevitable disaster which we can see coming but which no one takes action to prevent.
Everyone from the Jedi Council on down feels uneasy about it but none of them seriously commit themselves to a course of action. And that is the problem with a Titanic scenario from which little of anything is salvaged.
The alternate section of the novel focuses on Jorj Car’das, crewmember on board a smuggler’s ship, which after a firefight with an angry Hutt, finds its way into Unnknown Space and Chiss Territory and into the hands of the youngest commander in the Chiss Expansionary Force, Commander Mitth’raw’nuruodo , to be better known as Grand Admiral Thrawn.
Thrawn was arguably the most compelling character Timothy Zahn created with his original trilogy that relaunched Star Wars novels beginning with Heir to the Empire. There was no question that Thrawn was a fantastic creation and easily overshadowed the paper and cardboat cutout additions to the Star Wars prequels like Mace Windu. Even after his death, Grand Admiral Thrawn maintained a powerful presence in the Star Wars universe. The young Thrawn we see here bears many of those qualities of the elder Thrawn. He is brilliant and perpetually calculating, a chess game always playing in his head and his glowing red eyes curiously watching everyone and everything, learning, conceiving, synthesizing and understanding.
Timothy Zahn, who before he became more associated with Star Wars novels, excelled at creating the Cobra and Blackcollar novels spun tales of complex strategies and brilliant concepts of tactics that allow small numbers of forces to cleverly overpower and destroy far larger ones. Thrawn is arguably his ultimate creation in this regard. In what has been called The Thrawn Trilogy, Timothy Zahn pictures Grand Admiral Thrawn as a brilliant commander, a blue skinned Napoleon, calm and rational, ruthlessly brilliant and determined to exploit every weakness and cleverly make use of every asset in innovative and unexpected ways.
That holds true in Outbound Flight as well, but where in The Thrawn Trilogy, Thrawn was a brilliant and visionary Grand Admiral, given to flaws like an overeliance on technological gimmicks and plans dependent on a single strategic variable, in Outbound Flight he passes the realm of brilliance and becomes downright supernatural. Thrawn’s tactics in the Thrawn Trilogy are brilliant but plausible. In Outbound Flight they’re simply absurd as he uses a single cruiser and a few fighters to destroy and dominate every opponent that comes his way including an entire Trade Federation fleet and the combined force of Outbound Flight and a massive Vagaari fleet, at the same time. That is simply well on the unrealistic side.
A good deal of new developments that came about in the EU universe and the Star Wars universe have to be retconned in. Including the entire prequels. Where Thrawn’s statement to Pellaon in Heir to the Empire that the Emperor had him destroy Outbound Flight, this is altered to mean that the Chanchellor via Darth Sidious had him do it. The Yuuzhan Vong occupy a good deal of space by way of premonition with the Chiss encountering them and Thrawn’s agreement to destroy Outbound Flight motivated supposedly by this threat. Yet Thrawn agrees to spare Outbound Flight if it goes around Chiss territory.
Outbound Flight may be described as an attempt to describe Thrawn’s fall, in the manner and pattern of Anakin’s transformation into Darth Vader, as Thrawn’s desire to carry out preemptive attacks and mete out justice to slavers drives him to the dark side, yet it is never truly clear that Thrawn has fallen or that he was ever unfallen. He remains too enigmatic a character to so easily pin down. And the more Outbound Flight attempts to pin him down, the more he remains a shadow, a creature of fog, darkness and thin air.