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What ideas come to mind when I say the words 'Star Wars'? Lightsabers, X-wings, Jedi and Sith — all these are central to the mythology of the beloved Galaxy Far, Far Away. But there's also another tremendous power that is synonymous with the series; a dark shadow that obliterates entire worlds. Of course, I'm talking about the Death Star. We're about to see the Death Star in all its terrible glory in #RogueOne: A Star Wars Story, but in the buildup to the movie, writer James Luceno has been given the task of fleshing out the secret history of the Empire's greatest superweapon. In his 2014 novel Tarkin, and now in the official Rogue One novel Catalyst, Luceno is finally revealing the Death Star's secret history...
Back to the Beginning - Attack of the Clones
Oddly enough, the story of the Death Star doesn't seem to begin with the Empire. George Lucas gave us a fascinating glimpse of the Death Star plans in his Prequel Trilogy, revealing that they were originally in the possession of the Separatists. In Catalyst, James Luceno carefully hints at just how these plans had been acquired.
According to Catalyst, the Death Star plans were provided by the Sith. It makes sense; the central idea of the Death Star is that energy is refracted through a lattice of Kyber Crystals, in the same way a smaller Kyber Crystal focuses the energy of a lightsaber blade. These plans, Luceno hints, were on Geonosis for one reason only; to be found by the Republic.
Only a handful of Palpatine's closest allies knew what the Republic did next. Even at this early a stage, as the Clone Wars raged across the Galaxy, the Republic began setting to work to build the Death Star. Luceno writes:
"The captive Geonosian leader, Poggle the Lesser, maintained that Count Dooku had provided Poggle's hive with the basic plans, and that the Geonosians had merely refined them. To the best of Poggle's knowledge, the Separatists had no project of their own in the works. However, most cell members refused to take the Geonosian at his word. Intelligence had high confidence that Dooku's forces, in league with various corporations allied to the Confederacy, were in the process of constructing a battle station somewhere in the galaxy, and an extensive search was under way to locate and destroy that secret site."
Once again, we see the genius of the Sith. Fearful that the Separatists were developing a Death Star, the Republic began work on its own to beat them to it. So Palpatine manipulated the Republic into beginning work on his Death Star.
The reality is that this is a smart continuity fix; the kind that Star Wars fans have come to associate with James Luceno. It's a wonderful touch, fitting in perfectly with the overall Star Wars narrative. So the Death Star was born over the skies of Geonosis itself, and the Geonosian drones ultimately wound up doing the initial building work. Crucial to the Republic war effort, access to Geonosis was soon restricted.
As Poggle The Lesser declared:
"How many of you have gazed into the heavens at night and seen something new taking shape above our world? A crescent, a circle, a gleaming ring that is like the portal to another dimension? Many of you have grasped that our asteroids have been supplying the raw materials for the ring, as our dismantled and reassembled foundries have been furnishing the finished products. But how many are aware that the ring is an artifact of our hive? That the ring is, in fact, a Geonosian creation?"
Enter Galen Erso
The real problem with the Death Star, though, lay in the superweapon. The station was basically an extension of everything the Republic had always been doing with their capital ships, but the weapon itself was something new. As scientists struggled to work out how to make the superweapon work, Orson Krennic — one of Palpatine's cell of military leaders, whose activities weren't even known by the Jedi — remembered an old friend.
Galen Erso was a backwater scientist whose genius had captured the Galaxy's attention, and he'd been arrested on trumped-up charges on the Separatist-taken world of Vallt. The Separatists were trying to make a none-too-subtle attempt force Erso to work for them, but Krennic led a successful rescue of Galen, his wife, and their newborn daughter. In spite of Krennic's best efforts, though, Galen refused to involve himself in military activities. The end of the war came, but the newborn Empire still sought to wield the power of the Death Star. Soon, Galen was working on an experimental project meant to bring unlimited energy to the Galaxy — but his research was being co-opted for the benefit of the Death Star project.
Soon Moff Tarkin was placed in charge of building the Death Star, which was moved to Scarif, while Krennic continued to manage development of the superweapon. Prototypes were tested in deepest space, far from hyperlanes or any inhabited worlds. Unfortunately, Krennic became too cocky; he had scientists working on the project killed, convinced he had all he needed in Galen. When Galen and his wife discovered the truth behind their research, they fled, and Krennic's plans were ruined — and progress on the Death Star superweapon slowed to a crawl. Soon, Tarkin was placed in total command of the project, with Krennic reporting in to him.
Rogue One and Beyond
It's pretty easy to work out the rest of the story. Construction of the Death Star continued apace, but without Erso, the superweapon couldn't be completed. Krennic's priority became to track down the Ersos, which — as we've already seen in a Rogue One clip — he ultimately did. Although his child, #JynErso, escaped, Galen was captured; it's likely that his wife, Lyra, was too, to be used as leverage against him. Whatever his methods, Krennic accomplished his goal: he got Galen to work for him again.
But Galen tipped off the nascent Rebellion, who launched a successful raid to steal the Death Star plans — one that we'll get to see in Rogue One. The rest — the destruction of Alderaan, the Battle of Yavin, and the blaze of hope as Luke Skywalker struck a devastating blow against the other — is cinematic legend.
So now we know. The history of the Death Star, the most fearsome superweapon in move history, has finally been revealed. James Luceno has woven a compelling narrative, one that ties together countless subtle details in Star Wars continuity. I strongly recommend reading both Catalyst and Tarkin before you watch Rogue One - there'll be a lot more to this Galaxy Far, Far Away than you think!