With his Heir to Empire trilogy in the early 1990s, sci-fi author Timothy Zahn set the stage for a remarkable proliferation of books set in George Lucas’ Star Wars universe. The quality of many of those subsequent titles is fairly described as uneven at best, but Zahn’s books typically manage to be the sort of compelling space opera that would be worth reading regardless of its conformity to the continuum of the lives of Luke, Leia, and Han Solo. In Outbound Flight, Zahn again manages to elevate the story above the pedantic mediocrity often associated with books in a series such as this.
Set at a time between the first two prequel films (and with better dialogue than either), the story is about a doomed expedition beyond the boundaries of the Republic (and into “unknown” space). The Outbound Flight Project is an ambitious undertaking fueled largely by the desires of megalomaniac-in-waiting Jorus C’baoth, a Jedi Master who envisions an expedition beyond the known galaxy in an effort to contact “intelligent life” and colonize alien worlds in the name of the Republic. The project requires that a group consisting of six Jedi Masters, twelve Jedi Knights, and some fifty thousand colonists (men, women, and children) will board a huge ship cobbled together from several dreadnoughts and travel for years on a mission to contact new civilizations. Yes, it is sort of like the Jedi going boldly where no one (man or woman) has gone before. Except of course for the people already there, but exploration and colonization always does depend upon perspective.
Anyway, C’baoth hasn’t been getting much love (or funding) from the Senate. His pleas to Palpatine bring only vague promises of assistance in cutting through the bureaucratic red tape. That all changes when C’baoth – along with Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker – foil a conspiracy that threatened to derail certain trade negotiations. As is apparently always the case in the Republic, however, the attack was actually the work of Darth Sidious (and if you don’t already know his connection to Palpatine, well, you haven’t been paying attention for like the past thirty years). And Darth Sidious actually wanted the attack to fail, so that C’baoth would get his funding and fly away into distant space, from which he would hopefully never return. (Darth Sidious also has plans to help that happen as well.)
Unfortunately for C’baoth and the rest of those onboard Outbound Flight, they will be crossing space patrolled by the Chiss Ascendancy, in the form of the alien known as “Thrawn.” Not yet the Grand Admiral of Zahn’s prior books (since this is also a prequel), Thrawn nonetheless displays much of the military and strategic prowess which will make him such a threat later. In many ways, the book is more about Thrawn than Outbound Flight, as much of the novel focuses on Thrawn’s first introduction to citizens of the Republic by way of three smugglers attempting to avoid a member of the Hutt family.
Thrawn takes the smugglers, including Jorj Car’das, under his protection while they provide him with translation skills and teach him their language. It is through this relationship that one receives a few sympathetic insights into Thrawn’s character, especially as concerns his frustration with a “defense-only” policy that makes it difficult for him to attack the Vaagari, a nomadic race of barbaric warriors who are primarily driven by a lust for conquest and destruction. The novel thus foreshadows Thrawn’s willingness to side with the Empire over the more disorganized Republic.
Zahn’s success with the story is such that even were it devoid of the touchstone of the Star Wars universe, it would still be an effective sci-fi slice of space opera. Indeed, one of the more intrusive insertions into the story is the relatively brief presence of Obi-Wan and Anakin, who are here almost as if to reassure readers that the book is in fact tied into the Star Wars mythology. Otherwise, however, the vision of multiple points of conflict, the steady increase in C’baoth’s own dictatorial mentality, and the tragic way in which lives are frequently lost in unnecessary combat all serve to make it one of the more compelling Star Wars books one is likely to read.