The Force Awakens wasn't the first attempt to continue the story of the Skywalker family. The original Star Wars sequel trilogy actually launched way back in 1991, although you'd be forgiven for missing it--after all, it debuted in bookstores, not the local theater.
Now that The Last Jedi has split the Star Wars community in two, some fans have proposed that Disney should have brought author Timothy Zahn's Thrawn books--the original Star Wars sequel trilogy--to the big screen instead of introducing viewers to Rey, Finn, Poe and the rest. But those books are decades old. Would they really be better than Lucasfilms' newest efforts? And what makes them so popular, anyway?
It's all a matter of timing.
Reanimating a dead universe
It's hard to imagine these days, when every year brings a new Star Wars movie and a truckload of spin-off media, but in the early '90s Star Wars was effectively dead. In the '80s, Lucasfilm had tried to keep the franchise alive with animated series like Droids and Ewoks, but those fizzled out. George Lucas claimed that he had more Star Wars stories to tell, but not a single film was in active production. At the time, the only real source of fresh Star Wars material was West End Games' tabletop role-playing game.
Sourcebooks full of stats and trivia aren't the same as brand new stories, however. Fans were hungry for new Star Wars adventures, and Lucasfilm left them high and dry.
That's the climate in which Bantam Spectra released Heir to the Empire, the first book in the Thrawn trilogy. While the book came out in 1991, work on the novel had begun two years earlier, when Bantam Spectra editor Lou Aronica negotiated a secret publishing deal with Lucasfilm. After securing the rights, Aronica hired Hugo Award winner Timothy Zahn to pen the new trilogy, and gave the author carte blanche to do whatever he wanted with Star Wars' classic characters.
There had been Star Wars books before, of course. Before the original film's debut, George Lucas tapped sci-fi legend Alan Dean Foster to write Splinter of the Mind's Eye, which doubled as a blueprint for a potential low-budget Star Wars sequel (obviously, Star Wars did quite well at the box office, and Lucas decided not to adapt Foster's modest story). Two prose trilogies featuring Han Solo and Lando Calrissian appeared on shelves between 1979 and 1983, but those were prequels set before the main Star Wars films.
By contrast, Heir to the Empire is a direct sequel to Return of the Jedi, taking place about five years after the second Death Star exploded. In the book, a blue-skinned and red-eyed Imperial warlord named Grand Admiral Thrawn attempts to restore the Empire to its former glory. In order to secure victory, Thrawn enlists Joruus C'baoth, the deranged clone of a dead Jedi who agrees to help Thrawn in exchange for the deliverance of Luke and Leia, who he hopes to convert into his dark side apprentices. Along the way, the Skywalkers and the gang team up with a nefarious smuggler named Talon Karrde and butt heads with Mara Jade, a Force-sensitive assassin with a dark past.
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Heir to the Empire was an immediate hit, and Star Wars fans propelled it to the number one spot on the New York Times' best-seller list. Dark Force Rising, the second book in the series, proved that Zahn's success was no fluke. By the time that The Last Command, the third and final entry in the series, came out in 1993, Bantam Spectra was hard at work on a number of other Star Wars books, which covered topics like Han and Leia's wedding and the Galactic Empire's final days and ultimate collapse.
All told, the Star Wars Expanded Universe (EU) that Zahn's books kicked off contained roughly 270 novels, in addition to numerous comic books, video games, and other tie-ins, before Disney decided to wipe the slate clean and start over in 2014.
A series of happy endings
Unlike the new movies, Zahn's novels stick to the trajectory set up by Return of the Jedi, taking the story to its natural conclusion. Leia is married to Han Solo, has her own lightsaber, and is pregnant with twins. Luke Skywalker has continued to train in the ways of the force. The Empire is waning, replaced by the democratic New Republic. The action continues, but Star Wars fans' childhood heroes remain heroes. There's nothing complicated about them.
That's wildly different from Disney's new films, which sever the bonds between the original cast and scatter them across the galaxy. In the new canon, the New Republic is a feeble institution hobbled by bureaucracy and corruption. The Empire didn't win, but the Rebel Alliance didn't really, either. Heir to the Empire is comforting in its predictability. While Luke Skywalker's legacy is one of failure in The Last Jedi, the Thrawn trilogy gives him a (relatively) happy ending.
Zahn also had the freedom to play with Star Wars continuity in a way that the new films don't, and offered fans tantalizing glimpses into then-unexplored areas of Star Wars' past. Clones play a big part in the books, as does a fleet of warships created before the still-mysterious Clone Wars. While writing, Zahn incorporated details from West End Games' RPG into his books too, creating the impression that all of this new Star Wars material was part of one consistent universe--a trait that the increasingly convoluted Expanded Universe maintained throughout its 23-year run.
Of course, the most important thing about Star Wars is its characters, and the Thrawn trilogy delivers there, too. Thrawn, who relies on his mind instead of brute force, is a very different type of villain from Darth Vader, but is no less intimidating. Mara Jade, who viewed the Emperor as a father figure, is the perfect foil for Luke Skywalker, a guy with his own daddy issues. Luuke, a Skywalker clone made from Luke's severed hand, is kind of silly, but fans didn't seem to mind too much: In the lead up to The Last Jedi, fans transformed Luuke's origin story into a popular theory regarding Rey's parentage.
Thrawn lives on
It's easy to see why Disney didn't make the Thrawn trilogy into films. The story takes place shortly after Return of the Jedi, and Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher were a little too old for that by the time Disney got its hands on the franchise. Some of the Thrawn canon clashes with the canon established in the Phantom Menace trilogy, and compared to the The Last Jedi, the books play things awfully safe. Besides, brand new characters mean brand new toys to sell, and The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi are both full of 'em.
Still, Thrawn's legacy lives on in all kinds of small ways. The Imperial capital Coruscant, which plays a major role in the prequels, got its name in Heir to the Empire. Thrawn is the main villain on Star Wars Rebels, and a new novel by Zahn himself explores the Grand Admiral's backstory and his place in Disney's new canon. In the Expanded Universe, Han and Leia's son, Jacen, trained with Luke before turning to the dark side, echoing Kylo Ren's arc. The entire EU is lousy with super weapons, many of which put The Force Awakens' Starkiller Base to shame.
Ultimately, Heir to the Empire and its successors provided fans with what The Last Jedi didn't: a world where Luke never veers from his path, and where heroism still rules the day. It's not challenging or subversive, but it is comfortable. The Thrawn trilogy won't ever make its way to the big screen, but if you want an alternative to The Last Jedi's bleak take on the Skywalker legacy, look no further than your bookshelf. Heir to the Empire may not be canon anymore, but print is permanent. Thrawn and his friends aren't going anywhere.