Thursday, May 11, 2023

Commentary: Many Bothans Lived

This is commentary for Many Bothans Lived.

The story’s title plays on Mon Mothma’s enigmatic line from Return of the Jedi: “Many Bothans died to bring us this information.”

New Star Wars canon has mentioned Bothans a few times, but I don’t believe we’ve seen or interacted with any in new material. In the Legends continuity, Bothans and their homeworld were much more fleshed out. They played a major role in many stories, including the Heir to the Empire trilogy and subsequent novels.

They’re ascribed feline/mammalian-like qualities in Legends continuity, with furry bodies and pointed ears.

The main character of this story, Lort Br’lya, is heavily influenced by Borsk Fey'lya, a key figure in Legends-era stories. Fey’lya was a politician and high-ranking member of the Bothan Spynet who rose to great heights in the post-Empire era. He was often an adversarial figure, a skilled bureaucrat who manipulated others and prioritized personal power over the good of the state. Vainglorious and stubborn, he harbored an animosity toward Admiral Ackbar that led to a bitter rivalry between the two.

To be perfectly honest, I could’ve used Fey’lya in this story. In fact, I went back and forth on it. In the end, I decided to create another character with similar traits in hopes Fey’lya, like Thrawn before him, will one day resurface in Disney-era canon. He was never nearly as popular of a character as Thrawn, but his machinations during the New Republic era stretched from its beginning in Heir to the Empire through the New Jedi Order storyline. Few expanded universe characters achieved as much influence (and elicited more anger) than Fey’lya.

I imagined the Bothan Spynet as a decentralized group of cells operating as information brokers across the vast Star Wars universe. Some of them have friends in high places, while others befriend low-ranking techs or politicians to milk them for information. I use a lot of spy tropes in this story—dead drops, codenames, coded messages—to show a side of Star Wars we don’t see much of aside from Rogue One and Andor.

In my imagination, the Bothan Spynet is a vast apparatus rivaling the Empire’s own intelligence division. Lort, the group’s highest-ranking official, is one of the few figures given access to all the information coming in from across the galaxy. Analytical and calculating, he possesses the uncanny ability to take small pieces of information and use them to form a larger picture.

One of the more difficult aspects of writing stories about the Death Star II plans is making sure the characters have stakes. The Emperor, after all, manipulated events to make sure the plans fell into Rebel hands to set up what he foresaw as the “final showdown” against the Rebel Alliance. The whole operation, from the Emperor’s view, is a trap. As a writer, that really twists you into some narratively tough situations. If the Empire “let” the Rebels get the plans, then what sacrifices are the Rebellion and Bothans actually making?

I took the view that, yes, it’s definitely an Emperor-engineered trap. But he allowed the plans to fall into the hands of the Bothan Spynet with the dual purpose of finally destroying the Spynet itself. The group’s existence had angered and rankled the Emperor for years. It’s also important to remember the Rebellion’s spies, leadership, and rank-and-file have no idea they’re being manipulated. To them, this is a life-or-death situation. If they can’t get the plans to Rebel leadership, the consequences for the galaxy are dire. They view this as their best chance to destroy the Empire once and for all.

While the Bothan Spynet provides vital aid to the Rebellion, Lort and his colleagues don’t have the most favorable view of Rebel Intelligence. They see the Rebellion in pragmatic terms and have little affection for Rebel leadership, viewing them as a means to rid the galaxy of Imperial blight.

In a light revisionist view of Rogue One, the Bothan Spynet heard rumblings of a “planet killer” and passed the information to the Rebels. Based on my interpretation of the Spynet, this makes a lot of sense. The Bothan spies, however, play no role in the movie or the Andor series.

For a while, Lort and his spies believe rumblings of material linked to a “planet killer” are related to the first Death Star. Those rumblings grow increasingly loud and more frequent, however, and they realize the Empire is working on a second, larger battle station.

In this and other stories, I portray the Empire as a complicated bureaucratic machine. When its people follow its policies and protocols, the Empire wins. When people become complacent or fail to do their due diligence, the Imperial apparatus suffers. In the case of the second Death Star, an independent contractor fails to properly conceal a shipment manifest, allowing spies to find a single mention of “kyber.” This leads to further scrutiny on the part of Lort and his agents.

Even then, the Rebels are reluctant to take the news at face value. They’ve already defeated one Death Star, as Lort notes, and are not looking forward to dealing with another. They’re in denial.

The Moddell Sector is part of the Outer Rim and includes the Endor system. At least that’s what several Star Wars wikis tell me.

Lort refers to his cousin by her codename. It’s vital to Lort that his agents conceal their true identities. He wants to keep his spies as safe as possible. While he makes an attempt at cold detachment in his communications with her, he can’t quite fully commit to it. The two were very close as children and have a great deal of affection for one another. While she may not be the highest-ranking member of the Spynet, he puts a lot of stock in what she reports.

The prefab bunker mentioned in their exchange is the same one we see on the forest moon in Return of the Jedi. I like the idea of the Empire ordering a standard bunker and plunking it down on the planet. The bunker, however, needed a reinforced power grid to project the energy shield around Death Star II. “Aierzon” is meant to be a playful invocation of Amazon.

I mention Bothawui as the homeworld of the Bothan people. In Legends continuity, it was a typical, temperate terrestrial planet. It appears current canon has turned it into a gas giant. I will stick with Legends continuity for my purposes.

The “invalid code” comment from Saber plays into another story, “An Older Code.” With Rebel activity on the rise, the Empire changed its protocols regarding old and outdated codes. That story also suggests the Empire has difficulty coordinating such orders across its vast fleet. It would appear, based on what occurs in that story, that the Empire again failed to follow its new policy to “stop and detain” ships with invalid or older codes. That’s probably a good thing for the Spynet.

The Empire has also reassigned many of its ships, which mysteriously disappear from their prescribed patrol routes. This comes to the delight of smugglers and spice runners, who no longer have to worry about Imperial entanglements while shipping their ill-gotten cargo. The idea here is that the Imperials are moving the fleet to the Moddell Sector as part of the Emperor’s plan to entrap the Rebel fleet.

I mention three Star Destroyers. The Devastator is the large ship seen pursuing Leia’s blockade runner at the beginning of Star Wars. It’s the first Imperial ship Star Wars fans of a certain age ever saw. The Devastator served as Darth Vader’s flagship until he assumed command of the Executor, the Super Star Destroyer first seen in The Empire Strikes Back.

The Vigilance was under the command of Rae Sloane, a prominent and popular character in the new canon.

Lort definitely recognizes something amiss with current Imperial behavior. It’s not like the Empire to essentially “abandon” its patrols. It’s not like the Empire to allow Rebel leaders to openly flaunt anti-Imperial ideas. There must be a reason for this, he believes, although he can’t quite grasp it.

He fails to see the trap.

Myr’la mentions Mount Tantiss. The location, which initially appeared in Heir to the Empire, served as the Emperor’s storehouse of technology and weapons. It became part of the current canon continuity thanks to the animated TV show The Bad Batch. It serves much of the same purpose as a repository of weapons, technology, and cloning. It’s pretty much Crazy Old Palps’ House of Fun and Destruction.

While the Bothan Spynet sometimes has an antagonistic attitude toward Rebel Intelligence, Lort makes it clear he stands against the Empire. His thoughts about the price of overthrowing tyranny mirror, in some aspects, Luthen Rael’s viewpoint in Andor.

Armed with information about the Death Star II plans, Lort convenes a meeting of his intelligence chiefs. For once, they all agree on something. Bothans, by nature, are obsessed with the acquisition of power and personal prestige. For the intel chiefs to be all-in on the operation carries a lot of weight.

Lort suggests “For Alderaan” is a rallying cry for the Rebellion. I was thinking of Rogue One, in which we hear some Rebels utter “For Jedha!” after the Death Star destroyed the moon’s holy city.

It appears the dangerous operation to acquire the Death Star plans succeeds. It soon becomes apparent, however, that something is awry. One by one, Bothan Spynet cells are discovered and destroyed. Agents are killed. It’s clear the Empire is somehow tracking the Spynet.

Everything goes straight to hell.

Before long, Lort gets a priority transmission from Myr’la, who drops all pretenses of protocol and implores her cousin to make sure their sacrifice matters. She calls him by his real name on the transmission, something that would typically anger Lort. In his grief, however, he doesn’t care. His cousin is gone, and the Spynet he dedicated his life to building and preserving is crumbling right before his eyes.

He's defeated. Hopeless.

As the Spynet disintegrates and his agents die, Lort reflects on how, in his younger days, he would’ve been concerned about how fellow Bothans would have viewed his failures. This goes back to the idea that the Bothan people are very class driven and aristocratic in nature, their society fueled by prestige and power.

The automated looping message for Spynet agents to steer clear of Lort’s base recalls the message sent to Jedi in the wake of Order 66 in Revenge of the Sith. Lort even mentions the Jedi Purge to Guardian in a subsequent passage.

Lort is content to sit and wait for a Star Destroyer to arrive and end him once and for all.

“This is Guardian,” I hope, reads as a hopeful line to the audience. It means something.

Let me just say I love droids in Star Wars. In “Turncoat,” an astromech named Fate saves the day. In this story, an astromech named Elfie basically saves the Rebellion. Yes, heroes have blasters and lightsabers and starfighters, but they also speak binary sometimes.

Elfie disabled the tracking mechanism embedded in the plans, allowing Guardian to escape without being tracked to Lort’s base. He shows Lort the same plans we see during the briefing scene in Return of the Jedi.

Guardian’s real name is Ray’lo. Only after I wrote the story did I realize it sounded a lot like “Reylo,” the portmanteau used by “shippers” of Rey and Kylo Ren. You can call it a reference if you want, but it’s not meant to be. Just like the relationship between Rey and Ben Solo.

A late addition during revisions was the line about the Emperor overseeing construction of the Death Star. The ROTJ briefing makes this a Big Deal, and while the Death Star plans are definitely important, knowing Palpatine would be on the Death Star—and the implication that it would mean the destruction of the Death Star would result in the death of Palpatine—was something I needed to address.

When it comes to short stories, I’ll often use repetition to reinforce a point or make a world feel familiar to the reader. “Terror Bears” uses some (“We called ourselves the Dread Forge”). So does “Turncoat” (“She told the Rebels her name was Kail Tremal/But she was really Sevra Brack, TIE-XS75”).

In this story, I have a list of names and codenames. In the original version, it used to be longer, and I utilized it a few more times.

I cut a couple instances off the list. I also trimmed a few names from it because I didn’t even refer to some of the individuals in the story itself. The only ones Lort really interacts with are Sunrise, Saber, and Guardian, while the others are mentioned in passing.

To the reader, the rest of the names are somewhat meaningless, even if they’re mentioned in the story. The important point is that to Lort, they mean something.

The last line turns around Mon Mothma's most famous line. While the Rebellion focused on the fact "many Bothans died," Lort reminds us all "many Bothans lived" to make sure the Rebellion had a fighting chance.