Chaos Rising [Amazon link], the first of Timothy Zahn’s new trilogy, gives us a glimpse into the fabled Chiss Ascendancy, and the rise of Thrawn. Everyone has to start somewhere, and this book shows us a time when Mitth’raw’nuruodo was a junior officer of the Chiss Ascendancy. A Thrawn who is played for a fool, promoted, demoted, hated and loved. Reading this one makes me want to read Zahn’s other Thrawn books all over again.
Which is a pretty remarkable thing, insofar as this is the eighth book Zahn has written featuring Thrawn. Admittedly, from the IP owner’s point of view, half of those books might as well not exist, but this is the second time we have been given an origin story for Thrawn after the Canon/Legends split. So why return to the same kind of a book, especially since the last origin story was so good?
I can give two reasons. First, Thrawn had to go through the Imperial academy in his last reboot, but his success there was almost too easy, as he was already an experienced officer and tactician at the start of the book. Here, we get to see a master learning his craft, and selecting a path from the options that are presented to him.
Second, while I did really like the eponymous Thrawn, like Rogue One it was inserted into the gaps of other stories that had already been told. With the setup Zahn has here, he can tell his own story, with his own characters, in a place and a time far removed from what anyone else has done. That is a remarkable amount of freedom. Let us see what he does with it.
For thousands of years it has been an island of calm within the Chaos. it is a center of power, a model of stability, and a beacon of integrity. The Nine Ruling Families guard it from within; the Expansionary Defense Fleet guards it from without. Its neighbors are left in peace, its enemies are left in ruin. It is light and culture and glory.
It is the Chiss Ascendancy.
Part of what we get to see here is the culture and politics of the Chiss, fabled warriors of the Unknown Regions. I compared Thrawn to Scipio Africanus before, and I get a pretty strong Roman vibe from the Chiss. Something like the middle Imperial era of Rome, the Chiss Ascendancy is stable, safe, and a little bit boring.
Much like the Romans, the Chiss use adoption as a way to diversify their families and avoid having mere accidents of birth determine succession. Stability is everything for the Chiss, and while jockeying for status within the bounds of the system is considered fair play, politics is not something with which to challenge the way things are done.
A notable difference from the Romans is the Chiss have an almost Washingtonian aversion to entangling alliances. Republican Rome expanded massively while having a fundamentally defensive strategy because it was continually being pulled into managing the chaos on its borders. Unreliable hyperspace travel corridors in the regions surrounding Chiss space give them something like the strategic advantage of being separated from your potential enemies by large oceans.
Accordingly, strategic doctrine for the Chiss is much like Britain in the nineteenth century minus India, which used naval power to assure supremacy, balancing other powers against each other, and using punitive raids against anyone who dared to defy the Chiss. And much like the British Navy of the mid-nineteenth century, not having any real enemies to fight provides institutional incentives to let the proud traditions of the Chiss Navy ossify.
Into all of this steps Thrawn, the first unusual and bold thinker the Navy has seen in some time. It does not go well. When I reviewed Thrawn, I wondered how it was that if war is politics by other means, can Thrawn be so bad at politics? Zahn has directly answered by question, and I think part of the solution is that Thrawn seems very much like he has the Chiss equivalent of Asperger’s syndrome, as that term was used before autism spectrum disorder swallowed everything.
Much like many of the great scientists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Thrawn in comparison with his own people just seems a little odd. This comparison wasn’t really possible in the past, as we had few other Chiss characters to see. Thrawn certainly isn’t quite as strange as Oliver Heaviside, perhaps more like Paul Dirac, who managed to get married and have kids, but only just barely.
This is a particularly apt comparison, because I think we get to see Thrawn take a girl on a date? A kind of awkward one, but I think that’s what it was. I am absolutely fascinated to see how this plays out.
However, it does seem clear that Thrawn, while neurodiverse for his people, is self-aware and high functioning. We get to see glimpses of both unusual compassion, and unusual ruthlessness from Thrawn, as he simply does not have the same priorities as the rest of his people. And they are fortunate, as the Chiss Ascendancy is facing unusual threats, which will require unusual measures.
Like Admiral Raymond Spruance, who devised the successful carrier tactics that won the Battle of Midway while under sail from Hawaii to Midway, the Chiss are going to need an unusual thinker to solve their problems. And like Halsey, who got five stars to Spruance’s four while sailing the Pacific fleet directly into a typhoon, twice, we can also expect that Thrawn will not receive the credit he deserves.
Let us see what happens.
Other books by Timothy Zahn
Night Train to Rigel: Quadrail book 1 review
The Third Lynx: Quadrail book 2 review
Odd Girl Out: Quadrail book 3 review
The Domino Pattern: Quadrail book 4 review
Judgement at Proteus: Quadrail book 5 review