Despite the Popular Narrative: Star Wars: On the Front Lines Review

Daniel Wallace makes history come alive with an in-universe guide to the conflicts of Star Wars.

Star Wars: On the Front Lines charts the conflicts of a galaxy far, far away from The Phantom Menace to The Force Awakens. Except it exists outside of the narrative constructs of those stories and purports to be an in-universe history; a beautifully illustrated one at that. Author Daniel Wallace doesn’t go so far as to give himself a Star Wars persona, to make himself a character in his own story – this isn’t a found text that he is presenting to us – but the book doesn’t require that extra layer of meta-fictional artifice. It works on its own terms.

A Long Time Ago

Star Wars On the Front Lines

The narrative voice is that of the history scholar. It is written in the past tense, with the implication being that events took place in a distant past. This smartly lines up with Star Wars being set “a long time ago.” Not only does it look better and read more luxuriously than most history books, but the format almost suggests a sort of Dungeon Master’s Guide. If one was planning a roleplay of the battles of Star Wars then this would be a good place to get started. Its accessibility is one of its key strengths.

That the book doesn’t rely on a single era is enlightening, and is what any historical writer worth their salt would do. Context is king. Insights about the Galactic Civil War are teased out of an overview of the Battle of Naboo for example. And the path of history is of course quite clear from the Empire’s defeat to the rise of the First Order; history repeats.

Wallace provides an overview of each battle, adding sidebars that highlight the main protagonists. Personal recollections have been recorded and presented under the “I Was There” banner. These, along with the “Tales of Valor” sections, allow the conflicts a human/alien dimension, which Star Wars fans are of course familiar with. (Star Wars is nothing if not about the people caught up in these conflicts.)

Information of a more technical nature delineates the weapons and soldiers that were employed. The combination of the two provides a balance between emotional connection and data collecting. On the Front Lines shows a rounded history of war in a lived-in universe.

His Rigged Conflicts

Star Wars On the Front Lines

The introduction is as good a summary as any of Palpatine’s reasoning behind the Clone Wars. The Republic “sought to end war by uniting nearly all civilized planets under one banner. Disputes under the Republic would be settled through arbitration and debate. There would be no need for violence.” That the Republic “fell short in its ideals” essentially opened the door for Palpatine and his carefully constructed Sith machinations. But he “couldn’t sell his idea without making the costs of war apparent to all. His rigged conflicts – one at Naboo and hundreds during the Clone Wars – drove home combat’s ugly reality.”

It’s fascinating to consider just how Palpatine utilised the fear of conflict to create his Empire. That it was fear that led many to embrace the new Empire is an irony that he must have taken great delight in. Perhaps it’s akin to people voting for Trump in this unreal real world of ours, when what he proceeds to do is take away their human rights, to stamp upon them like ants. But wasn’t it obvious in the first place? As hard as it is to understand, perhaps it wasn’t to many.

“In the hands of Palpatine,” continues Wallace, “war was a tool that polished his image and annihilated his opponents. It only took a decade for him to achieve utter domination.” The Clone Wars series deftly gets to grips with this idea, strengthening the prequels as a result. Wallace is therefore wise to give sufficient focus to key conflicts from the Clone Wars here, for they have much to say about what came before and what occurred afterwards.

Lose Control of the Narrative

Star Wars On the Front Lines

From Palpatine’s creation of the Empire to attempting to snuff out its opponents, a major thread of his thinking was about determining the story. It is said that history is written by the victors, and Palpatine had no intention of giving up that right. Better to dictate the story throughout and shape history, than leave it to others to decide upon in the future. Of course it isn’t possible to guarantee how one will be remembered by future generations. But Palpatine wasn’t going to be forgotten, however events transpired.

“The Empire couldn’t lose control of the narrative,” writes Wallace. “It was far easier to preemptively shut down the opposition. And thus, two stunning events occurred in short order: the dissolution of the Imperial Senate and the annihilation of the dissident planet Alderaan – abruptly silencing any dissenting voices.” Wallace’s nameless fictional history scholar casts a cold eye over such events, attempting to prise meaning from the clutches of the past.

Happily Ever Afters

Star Wars On the Front Lines

Even once Palpatine himself was out of the picture, narrative remained of great importance. “Despite the popular narrative, the Empire did not perish at Endor. It took a full year for its wounds to become fatal.” Wallace does toy with meta-fiction here, for the “popular narrative” is also that of audience members such as myself who grew up with the original trilogy.

Return of the Jedi has a fairy tale ending, where good has triumphed over evil, and every viewing is a life-affirming experience. Yet happily ever afters are merely narrative constructs, meant to round off self-contained tales. The more complex the world building around it, the less likely it is to take. One can accept that Hansel and Gretel lived well after escaping the clutches of the witch and finding their way home to their father, because the moral points have been made and the story was constructed to support and deliver such points. George Lucas made Star Wars so lived-in that it always felt real beyond the confines of any endings, Return of the Jedi included. Therefore to find that another evil had risen in the galaxy thirty years later should have come as no surprise to anyone. Conflicts, like stories themselves, are cyclical. Just look around you; living history doesn’t lie.

Star Wars: On the Front Lines by Daniel Wallace. © Titan Books, 2017. © & ™ 2017 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved. Used Under Authorization.

Stewart Gardiner

Co-editor-in-chief at Future of the Force. Writer at 25 Years Later. David Lynch nerd. Star Wars fan. Unreliable narrator. Arthouse cinema and Hollywood dreams.

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