Sunday, 2 July 2006

Star Wars: Outbound Flight

Timothy Zahn
Del Rey Books
ISBN: 0-345-45683-1

Before the Clone Wars swallowed the Republic, the Jedi Master Jorus C’boath launched his plans for the Outbound Flight project: a grand experiment, taking fifty thousand Republic citizens and a handful of Jedi beyond the edge of the known galaxy on a mission of exploration and colonisation. He has a lot to content with – opposition from the Jedi Council, determined to focus the Order’s dwindling resources on more important matters; bureaucrats and red tape hampering the project’s realisation; the machinations of the Sith Lord, Sidious, who sees Outbound Flight as just another playing piece in his game.

But his enemies within the Republic’s borders may be the least of C’boath’s worries. For in the Unknown Regions, in the path of Outbound Flight, the alien known as ‘Thrawn’ has come across a smuggler ship whose inhabitants could set in motion a chain of events to doom the Outbound Flight project...

If this latest addition to the weight of Star Wars books on my groaning shelves has one major flaw, it’s that the novel doesn’t seem sure who to cater to. Those die-hard readers intimately familiar with Zahn’s other works will most likely find ‘Outbound Flight’ a little too familiar – the events that unfold within are a foregone conclusion, long ago revealed, and the ‘how’ simply isn’t interesting enough to support a whole novel. Those new to Star Wars’ Extended Universe, on the other hand, should find another place to start. ‘Outbound Flight’ jumps into the middle of a series Zahn’s been writing for close to fifteen years, and the sheer weight of baggage here is telling.

As can be expected from so enduring an author, the style of ‘Outbound Flight’ is solid enough. Zahn’s characters are well-detailed and authentic, those we’ve seen before remaining consistent to their established personalities and motivations. It’s not enough to save the novel from sinking into the mundane, however. The lacklustre plot, issues with pacing (particularly near the beginning, where a sub-plot involving diplomatic negotiations which could have been summarised in a sentence or two stretches on for dozens of pages) and the sheer inevitability that hangs over the storyline render ‘Outbound Flight’ both tedious and predictable.

In addition, Zahn’s need to tie the story in to already existing tales is painfully apparent. The presence of Obi-wan Kenobi and a teenage Anakin Skywalker aboard Outbound Flight is both an unnecessary and pointless complication and an insult to the reader’s intelligence. We’ve seen Star Wars books that don’t feature the films’ central characters before, and the setting is strong enough to cope. If the story of Outbound Flight were also strong enough, there would be no need for such an obvious crutch.

On top of that, ‘Outbound Flight’ is weighed down by the constant introduction of characters from ‘Outbound Flight’s sister novel, ‘Survivor’s Quest’, regardless of whether they have a role to play within this particular story, and the occasional name-check of characters from Zahn’s earlier works. Such interlinking serves no purpose, and slows the narrative to a crawl. The relationship between novels is clear enough that only the most inattentive reader would require such constant reminders, and as such they only serve to irritate.

‘Outbound Flight’s one saving grace is the appearance of Sidious’ agent on the scene. A political manipulator in the style of his master, he is smart, well-motivated and interesting to follow. His interactions with Thrawn himself are fascinating, and would have proved a far more credible viewpoint on the alien’s actions and motivations than the embarrassingly contrived arrival of Republic smugglers in the Unknown Regions. A shame, then, that he isn’t granted the page space that Kenobi and Skywalker gobble up to little purpose.

Too familiar for established fans and requiring too much foreknowledge from new ones, ‘Outbound Flight’ hovers uncomfortably between the two. If the tale it tells were strong enough, that wouldn’t matter, but the whole work feels a little too much like an exercise in joining the dots. As such, it’ll find a place on my ‘filler material’ shelf, and I doubt I’ll open it again.

This review was originally written for