One of my favorite things about Star Wars is how vastly nerdy it is. The story is completely accessible to both those who want to only watch the films and those who want to know exactly how the engine of an X-Wing functions. Lucasfilm is happy to allow fans to wallow as long and as deep in the lore as they want, grabbing fistfuls of knowledge that enhance your viewing experience but that never detract if spending four hours reading about the evolution of the protocol droid isn’t your bag.
Keeping with that tradition, Del Rey Books recentlu released Star Wars — Catalyst: A Rogue One Story by James Luceno. Wondering who Ben Mendelson’s dapper Orson Krennic is? Curious if Jyn Erso’s dad Galen is an Empire stooge or a coerced participant? Spent hours debating how exactly the Death Star went from Geonosian plans to finished product? Catalyst has you covered. Beginning a year before the end of The Clone Wars, the novel follows Galen, his wife Lyra, and an infant Jyn on a slow descent into becoming cogs in the Empire’s machine. With Rogue One: A Star Wars Story hitting theaters soon, I figured now would be as good a time as any to fill in the blanks on the how and why Jyn becomes the badass woman she is and her connection to the larger Star Wars universe.
[Warning: Spoilers Beyond This Point.]
So who are the Erso family? Scientists. Environmentalists. Optimists. Crunchy hippie vagabonds backpacking across the galaxy, following their research and their consciences. Until Galen’s genius brain gets him and pregnant wife Lyra kidnapped by Separatists while researching synthetic kyber crystals (the things that power lightsabers) on the planet of Vallt (which makes Hoth look like a tropical vacation). The problem with being the only expert in your field means those who would weaponize your research aren’t inclined to ask for it nicely. In the video below, I go into more detail on Galen, Lyra, and the danger of brilliant minds trapped in the bodies of naive people.
On the other side of the coin is Orson Krennic. Never one to believe in pure motives, the Death Star manager sees his old school chum Galen as a way to increase his standing within the Empire. If he can convince/coerce Galen into funneling his kyber crystal research into a laser of immeasurable power, it would be a feather in Krennic’s cap and a thorn in Grand Moff Tarkin’s side. Win/win! The only problem? Lyra Erso. Once again, Star Wars leans into the idea that women are tough as nails and will suffer no fools who put them and theirs in danger.
But the real star of Catalyst is the Death Star. After decades of speculation, the novel goes into detail on how such massive undertaking was accomplished as well as alluding to how Palpatine managed to get two moon-sized space stations built without the Rebellion discovering it until Return of the Jedi. Turns out it’s easy to build weapons of mass destruction if you don’t care about worker safety or the environment, and are able to keep your engineers and scientists in the dark about the true intent of their research.
Built by the insectoid Genonosians after preying on their nationalism, the Death Star strip-mined asteroid belts for resources. When those ran out, Palpatine and Krennic used “anarchist uprisings” and planted weapons to strip environmentally protected Outer Rim planets of their Legacy status and turned them into resource factories. Intellectuals and field experts who would never use their research to harm billions were promised unlimited funds and kept in pockets of isolation to reduce the possibility they’d wise up to the ultimate ends to their projects. Senators were sold a bill of goods that since the Death Star plans were confiscated from the Separatists, it stood to reason the enemy was already ahead of the game and funding was needed to keep up. Mutually assured destruction (which may in turn explain how there were two Death Stars in production as Palpatine was playing both sides). Author James Luceno walks the reader step-by-step through how fear and nationalism are a heady mixture that allows despots to collect power.
How does all this tie back to Galen Erso? The creation of the Death Star, much like the space project of the 1960s, requires the invention of new math. Or, in this case, the invention of a new energy source. Nothing in existence in the Star Wars universe at the beginning of Catalyst can power the planet-destroying weapon of the Death Star. It’s all theory. But Galen’s research into harnessing kyber crystals to give poor planets cheap, unlimited power can be modified. The story of Jyn’s father is one of a man who set out to save the galaxy who was blinded to the idea the unchecked power leads to corruption, suffering, and tyranny.
When Rogue One: A Star Wars Story arrives in theaters, we know Jyn won’t be able to stop the life’s work of her father from being used to destroy Alderaan. But the real question is whether or not she will she be able to forgive him (or if he can forgive himself) for the integral part he played in snuffing out billions of innocent lives.