Like most people, I first encountered the writing of Timothy Zahn through Heir to the Empire. You know, the Star Wars novel that kickstarted the expanded universe? I’d read adaptations before, but this – I think – was the first time I’d read an original licensed work. Suffice to say, it blew me away. The characterisations were spot on, the world-building first class and the pacing excellent. It took three unbearably long years before what later became known as the Thrawn Trilogy finally ended (or at least until I could finally read the last book) but by then I was hooked. Both on the Star Wars expanded universe, and Zahn’s writing.
The former didn’t last. After an initial flurry of good-to-great books, the expanded universe suffered a glut of deeply average and worse (Darksaber and The Crystal Star, anyone? If you’d forgotten The Crystal Star existed, my apologies). But Zahn has been a constant of my bookshelves ever since, and probably the single biggest influence on my writing style.
So what’s so great about him? Well, first of all, Zahn never fails to ease you into his settings. He’s a master at making the weird seem normal. A couple of pages into, say, Night Train to Rigel, aliens that look like chipmunks and bulldogs no longer grab your attention – by the time you stumble onto a galaxy-spanning plot concerning coral, you just shrug and embrace it. It might have been strange a hundred pages ago, but now? Now it’s just part of the universe Zahn’s crafted. Immersion, I guess you’d call it. You’re sucked into the setting, almost without knowing.
Part of why this works is down to how Zahn handles the hard science aspects of his works (he’s mostly a sci-fi writer). There’s invariably a solid science ‘core’ to his tales, but he explains the concepts clearly, and then lets the science take a backseat to the character conflicts. For someone like me, who likes the science in their sci-fi to be like their comics continuity (present, but not screaming in your face), this is wonderful. Science becomes the why of the conflict, or the enabler in getting the conflict resolved, but most of Zahn’s stories centre around simple, human conflicts. The family split across a warzone. An ancient evil bent on world/galactic domination. Freedom fighters doing what freedom fighters do. A detective mystery (in Spaaaace!). And so on.
As to the writing style itself? Writing sci-fi (especially anything other than near-future sci-fi) is a constant battle of tone. What do your characters sound like? Do they sound modern day? Weirdly archaic? Some strange future-argot? Zahn’s solution is a timeless dialogue style that wouldn’t sound terribly out of place in any setting, melded with just enough unique phrases, slang and technological expression. All told, it makes his characters familiar enough to engage with, but not so much that they’ve walked off the TV screen, or live three streets over from you. Zahn never lets you forget that you’re in an unusual setting, but the characters welcome you in, helping you feel at home.
But the clincher? Zahn plots seldom drag, and build to satisfying climaxes. He has a knack of dropping in little bits and pieces here and there. Sometimes, he’ll take the time to highlight that a character or development will pay off later. More often, it’ll be a case of I’ll just leave this here, make of it what you will. Most of his books are ensemble pieces, without a single clear protagonist, and it’s awe-inspiring just how many threads he can weave together into a satisfying conclusion – the kind of fist pumping ‘yeah!’ moment that you’ll remember long after you’ve turned the final page. It helps, of course, that you sorta, kinda see it coming as the story unfolds – not for Zahn the Agatha Christie style of hiding information from the reader – but you’re never sure whether it’ll pay off the way you expect.
The absolute best example of this is in Dark Force Rising, the second of the Thrawn Trilogy. By this point, a lot of Zahn’s own characters are deep into their own story arcs – in addition to what Luke, Han and Leia are embroiled in – and they all coalesce into a finale better than anything that’s graced a cinema screen. There are others, of course, but it’s not for me to spoil them for you.
As you’ve probably picked up by now, Zahn doesn’t real operate in the murky world of Grimdark fiction. He’s a writer of genre fiction in the classic style. Sure there’s tragedy and darkness in his tales, but they generally (but not always) provide challenges for the protagonists to overcome, rather than despondency in which they can wallow for 300 pages. Does that make his books better than Grimdark-themed books? Depends on your taste and your mood. For me, Timothy Zahn spins the kinds of stories that I want to see on the movie screen – fresh takes on Good versus Evil in distant and wonderful worlds.
Nobody does that better, and that’s why Timothy Zahn’s one of my Writing Heroes.