Heir to the Empire began with a name ? not with an author's name, or a book title, but with the name "Star Wars." Bantam approached Lucasfilm without an author or a plot, asking only permission to publish a book based on Star Wars. Later, Timothy Zahn was selected as the author, and he created a plot for the trilogy. Though Zahn is and was at the time an award-winning author in his own right, his authorship was not the motivating force behind the creation of Heir to the Empire. Bantam obviously saw marketing potential attached to the Star Wars movies, and Bantam was correct. Heir to the Empire sold quickly and prolifically, and even Zahn himself credits the Star Wars name for its success: "The fact that the first 60,000 copy printing vanished within a week shows that it wasn't the quality of writing that people were first buying, but the name "Star Wars" on the cover. I'd like to think that the quality helped the sales later on, but the fact remains that the audience was hungry for anything that dealt with Star Wars."
An examination of the book reveals Bantam's expectations. Carrie Fischer, Mark Hammil, and Harrison Ford are featured prominently on both the dust jacket of the hardback edition and the cover of the later paperback edition, immediately recognizable. Fischer's image portrays her in the uniform and hairstyle that movie fans will immediately recognize from the forest scenes in Return of the Jedi, holding her blaster with a pose that is also reminiscent of the movie. Chewbacca also stands in miniature to one side, X-wing fighters straight out of the movie, and stormtroopers in their unmistakable uniforms are also featured. R2-D2 and C-3PO are on the spine of the book, just in case the potential buyer missed the large Star Wars logo in gold above them. The Star Wars logo is also on the front cover in embossed gold gilt letters outlined in white, dwarfing both the subtitle and the author's name, which appears in much smaller type at the bottom of the cover.
Two of Zahn's original characters from the story made the cover. The book's main antagonist, Grand Admiral Thrawn, sits in the left corner, his entire body about the size of Hammil's head. The once-Jedi Jorus C'Baoth is the central figure, shooting dramatic rays of light from his fingertips. The cover at once recalls strongly the movies and pokes at the reader's curiosity with the promise of new faces to be introduced and explained.
On the hardback edition, the majority of the material on the jacket flaps is devoted to assuring the buyer both of the popularity and cultural impact of the original Star Wars movies, and promising that Heir to the Empire by "Hugo Award-winning author Timothy Zahn," will continue the saga in a way "worthy of the name Star Wars." The chapter titles also call the movie to mind, printed in a font similar to the "Long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away," intro. The paperback edition contains a page inside the front cover of "Praise for STAR WARS: HEIR TO THE EMPIRE." Out of the seven blurbs on the page, four center on the book's relationship on the movies. Of the remaining three, two praise Zahn independently for his work as a science fiction writer. Four blurbs don't mention Zahn's name at all.
Clearly Bantam was expecting to draw on an existing Star Wars fan base. However, this tactic had been tried before. Splinter of the Mind's Eye by Alan Dean Foster was published by Del Rey less than a year after Star Wars: A New Hope, but never achieved the fame that Zahn's books did. In 1983, Del Rey publsihed three books later collected as The Lando Calrissian Adventures written by L. Neil Smith, and Brian Daley wrote The Han Solo Adventures (also for Del Rey) in 1979. None of these books precipitated the sort of explosion that Zahn's books appear to have kicked off. There are six years between Heir to the Empire and its most recent predecessor, and such a hiatus has not occurred since. The Star Wars book franchise has grown more prolific over the years rather than dwindling out. In a way, this confirms Bantam's belief that there was a market out there for the Star Wars name, but Heir to the Empire must have had something else going for it in order to help start off the revival.
The original Star Wars movies told an adventure story in space, a classic tale of an unlikely hero with a mysterious past fighting on behalf of what is Good and Right against the Evil of the world. Black, white, and grey are all clearly defined. The Rebellion is good, the empire is bad, and rogues like Han Solo and Lando Calrissian inhabit a grey area where people are self-absorbed and profit-motivated, but not necessarily bad. There is a love triangle, there is brother against brother (or rather, son against father), and there are lots of aliens. There are also a lot of loose ends. Do Han and Leia get married? What does Luke go on to do, now that he is the last Jedi? What about Chewie and Lando? Does the Rebellion just take over and rule happily ever after?
These loose ends make Heir to the Empire possible and make it appealing. Unlike most of the previous books, Heir deals with events that take place after the events of the movies, rather than before or during. The fans are finally given the answer to "What happened next?" Zahn is also able to deal with more of the characters familiar to readers from the movies. The Han Solo Adventures, for example, could incorporate only Han and Chewbacca, since the books take place before Han and Chewbacca meet the other characters that inhabit the movies. The author must come up with a full new supporting cast, with whom the audience has no previous contact or attachment.
Two years after the publication of Heir to the Empire and its sequals, Lucasfilm Ltd. released the new special edition of Star Wars in theaters, putting the name of Star Wars back into the public's eye. The release of the remastered movies on video and then the announcement of the upcoming prequels kept Star Wars in the limelight, and certainly this could contribute to the continuing success of Zahn's novels, and the production of more novels based on the movies.
Zahn carries many elements of the movies through to the books. As in the movies, black, white, and grey are clearly defined. On the side of good, there is the New Republic, while the Empire remains on the side of evil. Han Solo and Lando Calrissian are now firmly allied with good, and Zahn creates the smugglers Talon Karrde and Mara Jade to take their place in the grey. Han and Leia are married, and the conflict of the love triangle between Luke, Leia, and Han in the original movies is replaced with a theme of conflict between love for each other and duty to the Republic. Luke's anxiety over his training and then his father is replaced by his anxiety over how he is to guide the next generation of Jedi, and dealing with the animosity of Mara Jade. By following the formula of the movies Zahn appropriates some of the things that make the movie appealing, as well as situating the book strongly as a continuation of these past issues.
Zahn also works within the text to weave sensory and most importantly verbal elements of the movie into the book. The second chapter begins with Luke receiving a visitation from Obi-wan Kenobi, calling to mind scenes from the movie, and to add to the effect, Zahn has Luke remember Yoda's death, and quotes Yoda's last words. Descriptions of Admiral Ackbar's ?gravelly' voice resonate with the scenes featuring the fish-like alien commanding the space fleet at the end of Return of the Jedi. Zahn makes a running joke out of Leia's protest of "I am not a committee!" in The Empire Strikes Back. In Chapter 13 Luke says to R2-D2 "Let me worry about the Star Destroyer; you just keep trying to find a way through that jamming," a line which very closely resembles one Luke delivers during the battle at the end of A New Hope, "You worry about those fighters, I'll worry about the tower."
Reviewers tended to judge the book in relation to the movie along these lines, and gloss over the Zahn's style and contributions, but association with the movie alone is not enough to justify 29 weeks on the bestseller list. These parallels provide a sense of nostalgia for the reader, but Zahn expands the universe as he continues it, so that the novel is also interesting, giving it staying power and the ability to attract a new readership. Zahn deals with issues largely ignored by previous Star Wars writers. The problems of setting up a new government, political maneuvering and the interaction between other cultures are themes in Zahn's book, while past Star Wars books tended to focus on single-book, short adventures with less sweeping ideas.
Beyond being a Star Wars book, Heir to the Empire is also a science fiction novel. Spaceships, alien cultures, and fantastic technologies are staples of the sci-fi genre and they aren't lacking in Zahn's novel. Heir has action, space fights and crashes, narrow escapes and chilling enemies. The elements that are more general sci-fi than Star Wars are similar to elements in Zahn's original works. In addition to appealing to Star Wars fans, Heir to the Empire appeals to younger sci-fi fans who might not have as much attachment to those who remember the original movies.