Book Review: Outbound Flight, by Timothy Zahn

He cocked an eyebrow.

Before the prequels, when the sequel trilogy was definitely never going to happen, we had The Thrawn Trilogy.

It’s easy to forget, what with the prequels and a book now it seems for just about every character who appears on screen (and even some non-characters; the Millenium Falcon hardly counts as a character) how important the Star Wars novels once were. They ranged from the inspiring (The Han Solo Trilogy) to the less inspiring (The Black Fleet Crisis) to the outright terrible (anything by Kevin J. Anderson). Let’s not forget the strange either (The Crystal Star). For many of us, the Star Wars expanded universe was the obvious sequel trilogy.

The Thrawn Trilogy got everything started in 1991. Timothy Zahn got over well, and he didn’t do it with prose; when a character expresses surprise, he “cocks an eyebrow” or if Zahn feels like switching it up, he’ll “twitch a cheek”. This happens so often I can’t help but wonder if everyone in Zahn’s version of the SW galaxy suffers from mild Tourette’s. No, Zahn got over via superb research, and a skill that many authors lacked.

He understood Star Wars.

He understood the locales, the characters, the appeal. His new characters fit well into the Star Wars universe. Early in Heir to the Empire, it’s believable when Pellaeon muses that Thrawn could have pulled out a victory at the Battle of Endor, even after the Executor went down. It’s believable that clones grown too quickly could go insane (and that the clones were the invaders, not the defenders, but that’s another argument for another time) and that a Force-sensitive clone could go doubly off his rocker, especially combined with years of isolation. It’s believable that Obi-Wan would one day be unable to linger as a Force ghost.

It’s also believable that the Jedi would want to explore outside the galaxy.

The source of Outbound Flight comes from the following exchange in Heir, after Pellaeon has suspicions about their new ally/pawn, Joruus C’baoth:

“Yes, sir.” Pellaeon braced himself. “Admiral… I have to tell you that I’m not convinced dealing with C’baoth is a good idea. To be perfectly honest, I don’t think he’s entirely sane.”

Thrawn cocked an eyebrow. “Of course he’s not sane. But then, he’s not Jorus C’baoth, either.”

Pellaeon felt his mouth fall open. “What?”

“Jorus C’baoth is dead,” Thrawn said. “He was one of the six Jedi Masters aboard the Old Republic’s
Outbound Flight project. I don’t know if you were highly enough placed back then to have known about

“I heard rumors,” Pellaeon frowned, thinking back. “Some sort of grand effort to extend the Old Republic’s authority outside the galaxy, as I recall, launched just before the Clone Wars broke out. I never heard anything more about it.”

“That’s because there wasn’t anything more to be heard,” Thrawn said evenly. “It was intercepted by a task force outside Old Republic space and destroyed.”

Pellaeon stared at him, a shiver running up his back. “How do you know?”

Thrawn raised his eyebrows. “Because I was the force’s commander. Even at that early date the
Emperor recognized that the Jedi had to be exterminated. Six Jedi Masters aboard the same ship was too good an opportunity to pass up.”

When I first heard of this book, I cocked an eyebrow myself — is this a story that needs to be told? I remember a lot of excitement when this book was first announced, though what was the source of the excitement? Was it Zahn’s return to the Star Wars universe, a momentous occasion heralded by a million fanboys/girls suddenly crying out in glee? These same people, who probably couldn’t name one of Zahn’s non-SW novels, even the book he won a Hugo for? Or was it because they found the references to it so interesting, yearning to know the details of this doomed expedition beyond the galaxy?

The big problem with this book is that even if you don’t already know the ending, a single glance at the blurb gives the game away:

“Now, at last, acclaimed author Timothy Zahn returns to tell the whole extraordinary story of the remarkable–and doomed–Outbound Flight Project.”

Not a big deal, right? Like Titanic, we all know the ship sinks. But since we know the ultimate conclusion, we need a great story leading up to it.

We don’t get one.

First, Obi-Wan and Anakin come aboard. They don’t do anything. Oh, we get a cheap glimpse of Anakin’s corruption when he approves of the original C’baoth’s methods (and there’s no surprise here — the original is just as batty as his clone). They come aboard for a half-assed reason and leave just before it’s destroyed for an equally half-assed reason. What’s worse is that if you know what happens, and you know this is between Episode I and II, then you know everything they do is meaningless, rendering their scenes a waste of ink and a waste of our time.

The other characters don’t fare much better. Jedi Jinzler had a potentially interesting arc. After all, she meets a long-lost brother who is not Force sensitive, who resents her for being their parents’ darling little Jedi. This could have been interesting, but it doesn’t really go anywhere. She meets him, feels sad about it…and then that’s it.

Rounding out the list: Jorj Car’das doesn’t know his right from his left, Quennto and Marris have some meaningless jealous lover angle, and Thrawn. Yes, the Magnificent Bastard himself is not yet a Grand Admiral but a Chiss Commander who believes in preemptive strikes. His people don’t believe in preemptive strikes. Trouble ensues, again, events referred to in another book, this time the Thrawl Duology (Vision of the Future, specifically).

Thrawn’s well-done, the ending confrontation is well-done (despite how it cheapens Thrawn’s original quote on the matter — C’baoth basically forces his hand), and overall, it’s not a bad book.

It could have used more on Jinzler’s brother, no Obi-Wan and Anakin, a more competent Jorj Car’das and just a more interesting story leading us from the Outbound Flight’s launch to it’s destruction.

As it stands now, you can just read the conversation from Heir to the Empire and not miss anything.