The Every Day Empire: Reflections on Catalyst

Catalyst was a good book. It was a worthwhile read. And, as it was very thoughtfully and craftily designed to do, it has whet my appetite for next month’s release of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

Catalyst is the story of Galen Erso: his passion for science, his devotion to both his family and his work, and the relationships that come to bear on his personal and professional life; all wrapped up in a volume that feels unmistakably Star Wars. From the opening paragraph, the GFFA seems familiar in a way that’s been missing (although I would be hard pressed to use the term ‘lacking’) from recent Star Wars books. Perhaps it’s just that Luceno contributed so much to the Legends universe that is to account for this feeling of familiarity. Whatever is behind it: Catalyst felt a little bit like coming home, and that made me smile.

While Catalyst covers a span of many years, it’s not an expansive story. Rather, it’s a small story; an intimate story. It’s a story that is largely about ordinary people in the midst of extraordinary gongs-on. And although the story is an interesting and engaging one, that’s not what has me happy to have read it. Knowing this backstory, understanding the relationships involved, and having already formed empathy with these characters will surely enhance my experience in the cinema next month. But the truth is that, without this book, I would likely have been just as engaged. Having not yet seen the finished film, there’s no way to know what questions the book has answered before I had a chance to ask them. Another read will likely be in order in late December.

What engaged me the most in this book are the things that are accessory to the story. Details that we learn in this book about characters both new and familiar are what kept me turning pages. This book dives deep rather than spanning wide, and if you’re the kind of fan who likes to know everything about everyone, this book satisfies. Very early on we learn a detail from Tarkin’s past that informs his behavior at the moment we first see him in A New Hope. We see familiar names from The Clone Wars and Rebels franchises as well- all of them existing alongside and threading themselves through the narrative as the Erso family experiences it.

We get to travel along with the Ersos as the Clone Wars come to an end, as the Empire rises, and as the fabric of society changes around them. And through them, we gain an understanding of the experience of ordinary citizens as to what the regime change was like- of what the transition from Republic to Empire felt like to those removed from the halls of power. Through the eyes of Orson Krennic, we see a glimpse of how the government structures were transforming and of the kinds of political machinations that could gain a man influence in the new regime. But it’s in our travels alongside Lyra Erso that we gain the most insight. We see the emergence of the ubiquitous Stormtrooper, and we get to sit with her as the first niggling suspicion comes to mind that things might not all be as they seem. And we get to follow along as those suspicions are borne out in unsettling, and sometimes terrifying ways. Lyra Erso, through her keen sense of the world around her and her fierce need to protect her husband and young daughter, sees the Empire more clearly than most. And with the world’s current political climate, her insights are profound, and sometimes chilling. Taken on its own, Lyra’s experience of the rising Empire in Catalyst could read like a political thriller the likes of Fatherland.

It is through Lyra, as well, that we get a glimpse of The Force from an angle that is not often appreciated. Having no connection to the Jedi, Lyra’s belief in, and connection to, The Living Force gives readers an interesting perspective on the perceived nature of The Force by those without the ability to use it. In conversations between Lyra and others, the average human’s perceptions of the Jedi are explored in a deeper, more involved way than we’ve seen in the past. This is very likely setting the stage for a better understanding of the Force-aware-but-not-Force-using characters we will meet in Rogue One, but whatever its intention, it’s a powerful insight into an oft overlooked point of view.

I learned a lot about the GFFA from Catalyst. Not only am I better informed as to the structure of the Empire as it formed from the Republic, the advent of the Death Star and its weapon, and the corruption of peaceful scientific pursuits by ambitious players in an abominable regime; I’ve gained an understanding of what people saw and felt and understood in the early days of The Empire. We know from Revenge of the Sith that there were those close the halls of power who were happy to collaborate with the self-proclaimed Emperor, and those who could see disaster coming and chose to resist. We understand now, thanks to Catalyst, that the same divide existed among the proletariat. Seeds of rebellion are already being sewn. They will grow to mightiness this December in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.